Olga's Gallery

Olga's Gallery

August 01, 2002

Dear Friends of Art,

During the past month we worked hard to prepare materials on some Pointillist painters. We've succeeded in introducing the collections of Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, Maximilien Luce, Georges Lemmen, Theo Van Rysselberghe, Charles Angrand. The arrival of this trend, called Neo-Impressionism, Pointillism or Divisionism, caused a scandal equal to that caused by Impressionism in its time. The only art critic, who admired and greeted the new art was Félix Fénéon (1861-1944), an officer at the Ministry of Defense, intellectual, journalist and ardent devotee of art. Today's story is about him.

Félix Fénéon and Pointillism

Félix Fénéon was born in Turin.  In 1881 he took a post in Paris at the Ministry of Defense. He was tall, with a thin angular face, goat beard, piercing eyes of uncertain grayish-blue color with golden sparkles. 'Mysterious', 'enigmatic', 'Mephistopheles-like', 'demonic' - these were epithets used with the name of this person.
'His sharp mind, bright and forecasting, troubled people. The self-insurance with which he related his ideas, shocking in their originality, exasperated his listeners and gave birth to vague, disturbing, anxious feeling of their own incompetence and inferiority,' wrote Henri Perruchot.
As soon as Félix Fénéon appeared at the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition in 1886, at which Seurat's La Grande Jatte was shown, he immediately estimated the historical importance of the new art technique. The future generations will remember 1886, because the age of Manet and Impressionism had come to its logical end and the age of Neo-Impressionism began, stated Félix Fénéon. 'Neo-Impressionism' was the term, introduced by him to denote the new movement, it showed on one hand its connection with Impressionism, which experimented with light and color, and on the other hand denoted the new style with its 'conscious and scientific' approach towards the problems of color and light. The 'bull confusion', so Fénéon called the reaction of the public to the unusual technique of Seurat, Signac and other Pointillists.
Actually he was the only critic who "proved capable of articulating an appreciation of Seurat's picture, and the new method of painting it exemplified, in words notable for their objective tone." (Hajo Düchting. Seurat. The Master of Pointillism.) Félix Fénéon defined to the public the idea that stood behind the new techniques,
"If one looks at any uniformly shaded area in Seurat's Grande Jatte, one can find on every centimeter of it a swirling swarm of small dots which contains all the elements which comprise the color desired. Take that patch of lawn in the shade; most of the dots reflect the local colors of the grass, others, orange-colored and much scarcer, express the barely perceptible influence of the sun; occasional purple dots establish the complementary color of green; a cyanine blue, necessitated by an adjacent patch of lawn in full sunlight, becomes increasingly dense closer to the borderline, but beyond this line gradually loses in intensity… Juxtaposed on the canvas but yet distinct, the colors reunite on the retina: hence we have before us not a mixture of pigment colors but a mixture of variously colored rays of light."

Fénéon's love for art was absolute, and even formed his political tastes. The failure by the "bourgeois" society to understand the real artists, its admiration with commonplace hacks, 'sugary masters of schools and academies', and its accusation of new and fresh trends - all this was enough for Fénéon to justify the destruction of that society. Fénéon approved of Anarchistic propaganda, even its extreme forms, which called for action using bombs.
Some works by Impressionists hang on the walls of his study in the Ministry of Defense. Later, when Anarchists' terrorist attacks shocked France, some explosives would be found in the same study.
Strange as it might seem to us now, many artists, including Paul Signac, Camille and Lucien Pissarro, Maximilien Luce, Théo van Rysselberghe, and others not only justified and glorified Anarchists, but supported them financially.
Signac wrote that once Fénéon analyzed the logic of Anarchists' attacks: the one at the stock exchange was against the bourgeoisie, others were against the army, deputies, representatives of power, one more seemed most strange and illogical, because it involved innocent civilians. Fénéon denoted the last attack as an act against electors. He considered that the terrorist act against electors was the most 'anarchistic' because electors were more guilty than the elected, who only fulfill the electors' will.

In March of 1892 French police talked about Fénéon as an'active Anarchist', they had him shadowed. In April his apartment and office in the Military Ministry were searched. Police found some explosives and Fénéon was arrested and imprisoned. Preliminary investigation ended on June 8, and the case was handed down to the jury.
In summer of 1892 Fénéon together with other intellectuals, publishers and journalists of the Anarchists' media, among others was Maximilien Luce, appeared in court. The case was called the Trial of the Thirty. All the arguments the police gave against the thirty did not meet jury's approval and on August 12, Fénéon and the majority of the other defendants were discharged.
Despite the discharge the police didn't believe in Fénéon's innocence. Once the prefect told Mme Fénéon who came to complain that the police continued shadowing her husband, "Madam, I'm sorry to say this, but you've married a killer.'
The Military Ministry fired M Fénéon, of course. His lawyer T. Natanson, offered him a post as editorial secretary of his 'La Revue Blanche". He worked for the magazine until 1903, and also organized exhibitions. In 1906-1925 Fénéon was the Director of the Bernheim-Jeune art gallery. His sharp remarks and snobbism towards 'bad taste' might have repelled customers, but his unmistakable sense for real art, his inability to cheat while selling items of art attracted them. If he offered to buy an item of art, it meant that he admired it himself.
In 1925, when Fénéon was 63, he said to one of his friends, 'I am ready for idleness' and left the gallery. Publishers and art historians attacked him with offers to write memoirs, Fénéon refused. He refused to re-issue his only book 'Impressionism in 1886', refused to issue a collection of his journalistic essays. He prepared a catalogue of Seurat's works, but refused to put his name as the author.
'It's so silly to go on living, when you're 78 (or 79, or 80, or 81)' he often said. During his last year he burnt all the documents and papers he had in his possession and presented most of his collection to friends.
Félix Fénéon died on February 29, 1944.

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