Paul Signac Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890 1890

  • MoMA, Floor 5, 501 The Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Galleries

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)
Oil on canvas
29 x 36 1/2" (73.5 x 92.5 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller
Object number
© 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Painting and Sculpture

Installation views

We have identified these works in the following photos from our exhibition history.

How we identified these works

In 2018–19, MoMA collaborated with Google Arts & Culture Lab on a project using machine learning to identify artworks in installation photos. That project has concluded, and works are now being identified by MoMA staff.

If you notice an error, please contact us at [email protected].


If you would like to reproduce an image of a work of art in MoMA’s collection, or an image of a MoMA publication or archival material (including installation views, checklists, and press releases), please contact Art Resource (publication in North America) or Scala Archives (publication in all other geographic locations).

MoMA licenses archival audio and select out of copyright film clips from our film collection. At this time, MoMA produced video cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. All requests to license archival audio or out of copyright film clips should be addressed to Scala Archives at [email protected]. Motion picture film stills cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. For access to motion picture film stills for research purposes, please contact the Film Study Center at [email protected]. For more information about film loans and our Circulating Film and Video Library, please visit

If you would like to reproduce text from a MoMA publication, please email [email protected]. If you would like to publish text from MoMA’s archival materials, please fill out this permission form and send to [email protected].


This record is a work in progress. If you have additional information or spotted an error, please send feedback to [email protected].