Greatest Art Critics Series
Felix Feneon

Biography of French Art Critic, Inventor of the name Neo-Impressionism.

Felix Feneon (1861-1944)


Career as an Art Critic
Feneon and Neo-Impressionism
Other Activities


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One of several influential art critics - like Louis Leroy (1812-1885), Louis Vauxcelles (1870-1943) and Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) - who found themselves in the middle of revolutionary developments in French painting at the end of the 19th century, the Parisian writer and anarchist Felix Feneon achieved lasting fame in modern art, at the age of 27, when he invented the term Neo-Impressionism to describe the Pointillism of George Seurat (1859-91) and others. Despite his support of political extremism, Feneon's top hat and goatee beard made him something of a dandy, an image captured in paint by both Paul Signac (1863-1935) and Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). Although Feneon went on to enjoy an active career as a writer, editor and publisher, none of his later achievements eclipsed his contribution as an art critic. Among the more knowledgable art collectors, the eventual sale of his collection in the late 1940s enabled his wife, Fanny Feneon, to establish The Feneon Prize. This award, launched in 1949, and run by the University of Paris, is awarded each year to a visual artist and a French-language writer. Interestingly, Feneon also coined the term Tachisme to describe the painting technique of the Impressionists, some 60 years or so before it was re-used by the French art critic Michel Tapie to describe the Tachisme splinter movement which evolved out of abstract expressionism.



Career as an Art Critic

Born in Turin, the son of a travelling salesman, he grew up in Burgundy before moving to Paris to take up a clerical post in the French Civil Service (War Office). He remained at the War Office for thirteen years, eventually rising to chief clerk. During this time he also edited poems by Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91) and Comte de Lautreamont (real-name Isidore-Lucien Ducasse) (1846-70), reviewed numerous other books and wrote regular reviews of Impressionism and other styles of painting. He also became a regular visitor to the Tuesday evening salon hosted by Etienne (Stephane) Mallarme (1842-98), a French poet and critic, whose work inspired a number of modern art movements including Futurism (c.1909-14), Dada (1916-24) and Surrealism (1924 onwards). He was a tireless editor of large and small avant-garde literary and artistic journals - including La Revue Blanche, La Vogue, La Revue Independante - in which he championed almost all the Symbolist poets, as well as the writings of Verlaine, Huysmans, Proust, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Andre Gide.

All these activities made Feneon one of the most influential critics of art in fin-de-siecle Paris. In particular, he was friends with artists like Seurat, Signac, Maximilien Luce, Henri-Edmond Cross, and Camille Pissarro.

Feneon and Neo-Impressionism

In 1884, at the first Salon des Independants - an alternative to the official Salon de Paris - Georges Seurat met Paul Signac, as well as several other Impressionist painters who were looking for something new, including Albert Dubois-Pillet (1846-1890), Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), and Charles Angrand (1856-1926), all of whom became members of the first French circle of Divisionism. In 1886, Seurat's masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-6, Art Institute of Chicago), was exhibited at the eighth and final Impressionist show and the Salon des Independants, in Paris. Later it appeared at the salon of Les Vingt in Brussels. It was in his 43-page booklet entitled "Les Impressionnistes en 1886" - a review of the Impressionist show, which announced the passing of Impressionism, and heralded the rise of Seurat and Signac - that Feneon first used the term Neo-Impressionism to describe the new Pointillist style adopted by Seurat and the rest of his circle. Other members of the group included Maximilien Luce (1858-1941), Leo Gausson (1860-1944) and Louis Hayet (1864-1940), who were later followed by Hippolyte Petitjean (1854-1929), Alexandre Charpentier (1856–1909), Theo Van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944), Felix Pissarro (1874-97) and Antoine de la Rochefoucauld (1862-1959). (See also: Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris.)

Seurat and his group aimed to refine the instant and impulsive mannerisms of Impressionism, by adopting a more scientific approach, involving patterns of dots of pure colour pigment, plus the new principles of optical colour theory pioneered by Michel Eugene Chevreul and Ogden Rood. Christened Neo-Impressionism by Feneon, Seurat's preferred name for the movement was Chromoluminarism, but names made little difference: the new style (like its predecessor Impressionism) attracted violent criticism - not for its Impressionistic looseness, but because it was seen as far too mechanical. Nevertheless, for five years (c.1886-1891), the style became highly fashionable within artistic circles, and continued developing until the outbreak of war. (See also: Colour in Painting.)

Other Activities

At the same time, Feneon was active in anarchist circles. Emile Henry, a friend of his, had bombed a Parisian cafe killing a boy and four policemen, for which he was guillotined in 1894. That same year, not long after the assassination by an Italian anarchist of Sadi Carnot, the French President, Feneon and 29 others were arrested and charged with the bombing of the Hotel Foyot. Luckily, Feneon and most of his co-defendants were acquitted.

Later, Feneon began a new career as a journalist, first for the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, then, in 1906, for the liberal paper Le Matin. After the war, Feneon sold paintings at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery - the centre of avant-garde art in Paris - run by Josse (1870-1941) and Gaston Bernheim (1870-1953) in the Avenue Matignon. In addition, he launched his own publishing house.

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