1861-1944 • Italy
Anarchist • Art Collector • Dreyfus campaigner
Born in Turin and raised in Burgundy, Félix Fénéon topped an examination to become a senior administrator at the Ministry of War in Paris at the age of 20. During the 1880s he became known as a leading literary and art critic in the Paris. In the 1890s he was accused of being an anarchist bomber and jailed for several months before being found not guilty.
To my great surprise while travelling to Paris on June 20 2019, Marian found an advertisement in the Eurostar magazine for a major art exhibition devoted to Fénéon. It began at the Musée du Quai Branly, where it was essentially devoted to his collection of African art. From October to January 2020 it continued at the Musée de l’Orangerie, where it focused on his anarchist artist friends. The combined exhibition was then scheduled to cross the pond to New York in 2020.
Fénéon was a founding editor of La Revue Indépendante in 1884, whose offices were in the Rue de Médicis. He then became editor of La Vogue in 1885, contributing to Le Symboliste in 1886. All of these posts were part-time.
Fénéon coined the term ‘neo-impressionism’ and promoted pointillism. Very friendly with Georges Seurat, he promoted pointillism.
At the same, like many intellectuals in the ten years from 1885, Fénéon was attracted by anarchist libertarian and egalitarian ideals. He attended anarchist meetings, was a friend of Émile Henry, the 20-year-old bomber of the Café Terminus. He supported the ‘propaganda by deed’ movement and had a substantial police file.
After the Rue de Condé explosion at the Restaurant Foyot, the police found nothing incriminating at his flat in Rue Lepic. But a flask of mercury and detonator tubes were found in his office at the War Ministry. He was arrested and jailed in the Prison Mazas.
With 29 others in August 1894 he was put on trial for ‘criminal association’ with other anarchists in the ‘Trial of the Thirty‘.
In August 1894 the 20-year-old Italian anarchist baker, Caserio, who in June 1894 in Lyon had mortally stabbed the French President Sadi Carnot, was guillotined.
In the witness box, Fénéon mounted a brilliant defence, totally ridiculing the prosecution. His lawyer, Edgar Demange went on to represent the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus in his two trials in 1894 and 1899. Fénéon and 26 others were found not guilty. Fénéon, however, lost his War Office post and steady income.
He was then asked by Thadée Natanson to became editor of La Revue Blanche, an influential artistic and literary journal, sympathetic to anarchist ideas that the wealthy banker’s son had founded in 1889. Active in supporting Dreyfus, Natanson was in 1898 one of the founders of the Rights of Man League.
Artists like Pierre Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec designed the front covers of La Revue Blanche and illustrated articles by authors such as Proust and Gide. He also published poems by Stéphane Mallarmé
Fénéon broadened the journal’s politics to include pieces by Lucien Herr, Léon Blum, Kropotkin and Tolstoy. In January 1898 Fénéon signed the Manifesto of Intellectuals published in support of Dreyfus the day after Zola’s ‘J’accuse’ letter that led to Dreyfus’ second trial.
World War 1
From 1906 Fénéon also sold paintings in the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune art gallery and edited its journal from 1919 to 1926.
During the World War 1, when some leading anarchists identified with their national governments, Fénéon began to distance himself from anarchism. After the Bolshevik revolution, with his friend Paul Signac, he came closer to the Communist Party.
From 1920 to 1922 he worked as a literary editor for Editions de la Sirène, publishing James Joyce, Jerome K Jerome and many others. In 1936, on the victory of the Popular Front, he hoisted a red flag in front of his house.
He died at Châtenay-Malabry aged 82 in 1944.
In 1947, shortly before her own death, his widow, Fanny Goubaux, set up the annual Prix Fénéon (Feneon Prize), organised by the University of Paris. This was funded by the sale of much of his by then extensive art collection, bought from antique dealers and given by his friends.
Today, Feneon Prizes for literature and art still offer under 35-year-old poor French artists and writers funding to help them follow their chosen path. In 2018 Julia Kerninon won the literary prize, and Salomé Fauc the artistic prize.