Art criticism and engagement

Art criticism and engagement

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Title: Portrait of Félix Fénéon.

Author : LUCE Maximilien (1858 - 1941)

Creation date : 1901

Date shown: 1901

Dimensions: Height 45 - Width 31

Technique and other indications: Oil on cardboard.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 03-015341 / RF1980-189

Portrait of Félix Fénéon.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Publication date: October 2005

Historical context

A new system

The art critic is a well-known cultural actor today. If Diderot can be considered the first art critic in the modern sense, it was not until the XIXe century that its role as arbiter of taste and / or maker of reputations has been consolidated. Paris, thanks in particular to the prestige of its academic system, became in the XIXe century the world capital of the arts, draining all that France and abroad have of artists. While, at the same time, the company shows a growing interest in art, relayed by the development of means of reproduction (lithography, photography, publishing fonts, etc.), the role of the art critic and that of of the dealer become stronger: it falls to them "the difficult task of establishing the reputation of an artist in such or such a specific circle of art lovers" (Ibid., p. 100).

Image Analysis


In 1901, the painter Maximilien Luce (1858-1941) painted on a small cardboard a portrait of the art critic Félix Fénéon (1861-1944): quickly executed, the portrait is the outline of a more accomplished work (1903) now kept in the Nevers museum, but also a testimony of friendship. Presumably seized while passing through a workshop, the enigmatic dandy, very unconventional, that is Fénéon can be recognized by his pointed goatee, his overcoat, his hat and his jar. Of working-class origin, self-taught, close to the neo-impressionist group, Luce had been noticed and supported by Fénéon in the late 1880s. Quick to commit, the critic organized the painter's first personal exhibition in the small bookstore of The Independent Review of which he was the editor. Luce was grateful to Fénéon for this support. The austerity of the portrait signals the great intellectual integrity of the model, who saw her engagement with artists as a form of apostolate. Japanese prints on the wall recall the critic's passion for this art form on which he planned to write a book.


Some commitments from Fénéon

Like Luce, Fénéon is of humble origin. His job as an editor at the War Ministry allows him to live. But most of his activity is devoted to engagement: artistic, literary, political. Invested in the main art and literature reviews of the turn of the century, he took up the cause for Seurat, discovering A swim, Asnières, at the Salon des Indépendants in 1884. Its brochure The Impressionists is an attempt to explain neo-impressionist painting. Fénéon's style, incisive, direct and technical, aims to explain with fidelity and precision to the reader the approach of the artists he defends. Rémy de Gourmont said of him that he had "all the qualities of an art critic: the eye, the analytical mind, the style which shows what the eye has seen and understands what the mind has understood. "(Joan U. Halperin, Feneon, p.124). "Bonnard, very Japanese": it was with this concise but extremely enlightening formula that in 1892 Fénéon characterized the painter's Nabi period.

Fénéon is a catalyst, defending both artists and writers. He thus re-edited the works of Tristan Corbière, who died unknown in 1875, transcribed the manuscripts of Jules Laforgue (died in 1887), joined the director Antoine, becoming the regular critic of the Théâtre-Libre, but he still tried to go beyond the boundaries between disciplines and ensure the visibility of the artists he defends: at the Théâtre-Libre foyer, Fénéon organizes a small gallery of paintings (where works by Seurat and Signac are presented).

Like his friend Luce (indicted in 1894 for having painted paintings representing workers and donated lithographs for anarchist publications), Fénéon was a fervent anarchist, finding the time to collaborate in the main libertarian reviews. While worried about an anarchist attack, Mallarmé will say of him, in his defense, that his articles are the best detonators. Fénéon contributes to The White Review, of which he was the editorial secretary from 1895 to 1903, a Dreyfus home, while organizing in 1900 in his offices the first retrospective exhibition of Seurat. Aware of the role of the dealer, Fénéon became involved in the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, of which he was from 1906 the artistic director of the modern art section. Thanks to his networks and his sales talents, many artists (Cross, Signac, Matisse, Van Dongen…) achieved success and… fortune.

  • art critic
  • dandyism
  • portrait
  • hurry
  • living room
  • engaged art
  • Fénéon (Felix)
  • Nabis


Jean-Paul BOUILLON, Antoinette EHRARD, Nicole DUBREUIL-BLONDIN and Constance NAUBERT-RISER, (texts collected and presented by), La Promenade du critique influent: Anthology of art criticism in France (1850-1900), Paris, Hazan, 1990.Joan Ungersma HALPERIN, Felix Fénéon, Paris, Gallimard, 1991.Harrison C. and Cynthia A.White, The career of painters in the 19th century, Paris, Flammarion, 1991 [American edition 1965].

To cite this article

Philippe SAUNIER, “Art critic and engagement”

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