In 1890, the neo-Impressionist Paul Signac offered to paint Félix Fénéon, the very coiner, four years previously, of the term ‘neo-Impressionist’. The critic-subject responded with modest evasiveness, and then a proviso: ‘I will express only one opinion: effigy absolutely full-face – do you agree?’ Signac did not agree. Five months later, the best-known image of Fénéon emerged: in left profile, holding top hat and cane, presenting a lily to an off-canvas recipient (homage to an artist? love-gift to a woman?) against a circusy pinwheel of dashing pointillist colour. Fénéon, whether from vanity or critic’s pique at the artist’s disobedience, strongly disliked the image, commenting that ‘the portraitist and the portrayed had done one another a cruel disservice.’ He accepted the picture, however, and kept it on his walls until Signac died some 45 years later. But neither that event, nor the passing of time, mellowed his judgment: in 1943 he told his friend and future literary executor, the critic Jean Paulhan, that it was ‘the least successful work painted by Signac’.

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