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Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints

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

“Portrait de Félix Fénéon” by 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” by Paul Signac depicts the French art critic Félix Fénéon standing in front of a swirling colored background.

The portrait is a profile of Fénéon, with his characteristic goatee beard, wearing a brown coat with a black suit and white shirt. He holds a black top hat and walking cane in his left hand and a cyclamen flower with the fingers of his outstretched right hand.

The subject’s body creates a triangular pattern, while the curves of the flower echo the upward trajectory of Fénéon’s goatee. The background is a rhythmic beat of swirling colors contrasting with the foreground portrait of Fénéon and the flower.

The swirling patterns in the background create a color wheel with abstract designs meeting at a central point. A Japanese woodblock print may have inspired the background. Signac’s gallery of Japanese prints included examples of kimono patterns.

Fénéon’s relation to the decorative background may be symbolic as he was a defender of Neo-Impressionists against criticism. The critics suggested that the Neo-Impressionists were painting uniform dots to resembled mosaics or tapestries. Fénéon urged:

“Take a few steps back, the technique . . . vanishes; the eye is no longer attracted by anything but that which is essentially painting.”

Fénéon’s view was that art was the creation of a superior and purified reality transfused with the artist’s personality.

In 1890 Fénéon had written the first biography of Signac for a literary review and in gratitude, Signac decided to create a portrait of the critic:

“It will not be an ordinary portrait but a carefully planned composition meticulously constructed in terms of lines and colors.”

By the time of this painting, the free brushstrokes of Impressionism were being challenged by the more scientific approaches of Divisionism or Pointillism, championed by Seurat and Signac.

Signac was influenced by aesthetic theories on color and the “algebra” of visual rhythm, which proposed a link between outer stimuli and psychic reaction.

The new approach to painting with small contrasting colored dots was based on a recently proposed color theory. Signac believed that the pure colors of the dots would be combined in the viewer’s eye and mind to create a more vivid work.

Unlike many art critics, Fénéon was a supporter of Seurat and Signac, naming their artistic approach Neo-impressionism.

In the 1891 Salon des Indépendents Exhibition, this painting was not well received by most critics, who considered that the background dominated the portrait figure.

The exceedingly long title of the painting may have been a witticism on the pretensions of the time.

Eventually, however, this painting became a famous profile image of Fénéon with his characteristic goatee, and it became a symbol of the movement, spawning many variations. 

In the lower corners are the title, “OP. 217” and the artist’s signature and the date, “P. Signac 90”. At the time, Signac was 27 years old, and Fénéon had turned 29 years old. Signac gave the painting to Fénéon, who kept it until his death. 

Félix Fénéon

Félix Fénéon (1861 – 1944) was a French anarchist and art critic who coined the term “Neo-Impressionism” in 1886 to identify a group of artists led by Georges Seurat.

The Fénéon Prize was established in 1949 by his wife based on proceeds from the sale of his art collection.


Neo-Impressionism was a term coined by Félix Fénéon in 1886 to describe an art movement founded by Georges Seurat. Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” marked the beginning of this movement.

Around this time, France’s modern era was emerging, and many painters were in search of new scientific methods. Science-based interpretation of lines and colors influenced Neo-Impressionists’ characterization of their contemporary art.

The Pointillist and Divisionist techniques are often mentioned in this context because it was the dominant technique at the beginning of the Neo-impressionist movement.

The Neo-Impressionists were able to create a movement very quickly in the 19th century, partially due to its strong connection to anarchism, which set a pace for later artistic manifestations.

Paul Signac

Paul Signac (1863 – 15 August 1935) was a Neo-Impressionist painter who, working with Georges Seurat, helped develop the Pointillist style.

Signac experimented with various media, including oil painting, watercolors, etchings, lithographs, and pen-and-ink sketches composed of small dots.

The Neo-Impressionists influenced the next generation: Signac inspired Henri Matisse and André Derain in particular, thus playing a decisive role in the evolution of Fauvism.

Politically, Signac was an anarchist, as were many of his friends, including Félix Fénéon and Camille Pissarro.

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

  • Title:                         Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890
  • French:                     Opus 217. Sur l’émail d’un fond rythmique de mesures et d’angles, de tons et de teintes, Portrait de M. Félix Fénéon en 1890
  • Artist:                       Paul Signac
  • Year:                        1890
  • Medium:                  Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:             Height: 73.5 cm (28.9 in); Width: 92.5 cm (36.4 in)
  • Museum:                  Museum of Modern Art, NYC – MOMA

Paul Signac

Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde—From Signac to Matisse and Beyond

A Virtual Tour of the Museum of Modern Art, (MoMA), NY

Paul Signac, “Portrait of Félix Fénéon”

Paul Signac: A collection



“The golden age has not passed; it lies in the future.”
– Paul Signac


Photo Credit: Paul Signac / Public domain

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