Félix Fénéon was an editor, translator, art dealer, and anarchist activist and the critic who coined the term Neo-Impressionism to describe the works of Signac and Georges Seurat in the late 1880s. In this portrait, Signac depicted Fénéon in left profile. The lines of the subject’s nose, elbow, and cane descend in a zigzag pattern, like the rhythmic “beats and angles” of the title, and the flower he holds rhymes with the upturned curl of his goatee. Attention to abstract patterns continues in the kaleidoscopic pinwheel of the backdrop, likely an allusion to the aesthetic theory of Charles Henry, the Frenchman whose books on color theory and the “algebra” of visual rhythm Signac had recently illustrated.
Fénéon’s relation to the decorative background may be symbolic. In 1887 he had defended the Neo-Impressionists against criticism that their application of paint in uniform dots resembled mosaics or tapestries. “Take a few steps back,” Fénéon urged, and “the technique . . . vanishes; the eye is no longer attracted by anything but that which is essentially painting.” But what was painting’s essence at that historical moment? Was it a means of relaying nature’s ephemeral bloom to the viewer, or the craft of composing paint on canvas? In this portrait, the answer is both, and neither. As Fénéon saw it, painting was the creation of a superior and purified reality transfused with the artist’s personality.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)