The place of the frame: Louise Delbarre interviews Isabelle Cahn, co-curator of the exhibition ‘Félix Fénéon (1861-1944)’

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, 1890, o/c, 29 x 36 ½ ins (73.5 x 92.5 cm.), Museum of Modern Art, New York

An elusive figure, Félix Fénéon had a major role in the development of modern painting in the second half of the 19th century. An exhibition presented in two parts at the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, and which will then be shown at MoMA in New York, pays homage to this singular man, ‘who wanted to be forgotten’ [1]. Isabelle Cahn, Chief Curator of Paintings at the Musée d’Orsay, is one half of the duo curating the exhibitions. From her first pioneering work on 19th century frames [2], she has shone a light on the importance of Fénéon in this field.

The exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944)

The exhibition examines his many different facets: the art critic defending the Neo-Impressionists; the editor-in-chief of La Revue Blanche from 1896 to 1903; the art dealer and director of the Galerie Berheim-Jeune from 1906 to 1924; but also one of the most perspicacious collectors of his time. Fénéon assembled an exceptional group of works of art, which included those of his Neo-Impressionist friends as well as remarkable pieces of African art, of which he became one of the first collectors in France. This taste for areas of creative liminality also made him the only French critic to be interested in the question of the frame from a theoretical point of view. He was already regretting, in 1922, that ‘the time [is] still to come when painting and frame will enjoy such a firm bond that, when we photograph one, we will have to photograph both’, and expressing his wish for a ‘rational presentation of the modern painting’, where it would not have to be put into an antique frame to reassure the purchaser of its value.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), sketch from Carnet de croquis no 23, 1878-79, Département des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

In this interview, Isabelle Cahn returns to the decisive importance of Fénéon in recounting the history of the frame at the end of the 19th century, as well as to her own research. This led her to rediscover the coloured frames which were originally produced by the Impressionists, to resurrect Degas’s sketches of profiles and mouldings made as patterns for the frames for his paintings, and to highlight the idea of the ‘artist’s frame’, which is so essential for understanding the evolution and revolution of painting in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Louise Delbarre: How should we describe Fénéon’s view of the frame? Could the notion of harmony be key to it, and, if so, what significance should we give it?

Isabelle Cahn: I’d like to say something first about the common thread which brought you to this interview. When I was researching my thesis for the École du Louvre [3], Fénéon’s theoretical pieces on Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist frames came as a revelation. Finding these enlightening, beautiful and poetic texts, brought together by Joan Halperin [4], was a catalyzing moment – something really welcome at a time when there was hardly any research on the subject. Fénéon was one of the first to emphasize the importance of the frame in the process of artistic creation. His essays on frames agree more generally with his critical pieces on the Neo-Impressionists, the artists to whom he was closest. Fénéon lets them speak through his pen, explaining their aesthetic theories and the scientific processes of their painting.

Paul Signac (1863-1935), Application du cercle chromatique de M. Ch[arles] Henry, 1889, Musée Gatien-Bonnet

He questions Seurat, who would rather spend his time painting, and doesn’t explain much at all. Signac and Pissarro, who are a bit more forthcoming, give him some hints. Fénéon has read Charles Henry’s theories: the science of art interests him because, at this point, he wants to write objective critical essays, putting the art and artists before any authorial intervention. His work shows the effort he made to understand a very complicated, somewhat abstruse system, as well as the empathizing with the aims of the painters themselves. Some of his descriptions are rather drawn-out and boring, but of course we have to remember that this was a time when reproductions were rare. You had to visualize a painting from its verbal description.

Georges Seurat (1859-91), The Channel of Gravelines: Petit Fort Phillippe, o/c, 28 7/8 x 36 ¼ ins, Indianapolis Museum of Art

His comments on the frames used by the Neo-Impressionists, both the outer wooden frames and the painted borders, are much more explicit – they are a distillation of his observations. These frames are the realization of the wish to create an area of transition between the painted and the real world: hence the idea of a neutral zone, a theoretical or an actual white space, to mark the break. Fénéon is impassioned on this subject. It shows the importance of the frame, which was often still considered just an accessory, for the birth of a new form of painting – making it in fact the point at which Neo-Impressionist theories crystallize. His descriptions of frames are often brief and forceful, but sometimes poetic. They grab your attention and make you want to look at the work afresh. Fénéon, along with the artists themselves, asks the questions which today concern all those interested in the frame: what are the boundaries of the painting? – how is a transition to be created? – where is the border between fiction and reality? These are questions which are still relevant. What interests me personally in frames is the question of the space depicted, even before we come to its boundaries. What does the painting represent? What physical or mental space are we in? Is there a unity between these different levels or – as early artists realized in their paintings – can they exist together?

Georges Seurat, Young woman powdering herself, 1888-1890, o/c, 107 x 95.5 cm., Courtauld Institute of Art, London, P.1932.SC.396

Document connected to Seurat’s Young woman powdering herself, recto, in the Fénéon file, INHA Library, Archives 36/6. Fénéon executed the posthumous inventory of Seurat’s studio on his premature death in 1891. This document describes very accurately the ‘distinctive feature’ of the painting: ‘Border (predominantly blue) painted by Seurat on the canvas itself’.

LD: The frame, however, remains above all a theoretical concept for Fénéon…?

IC: At the end of the 19th century, the painting was no longer considered as simply another form of story-telling. Instead it expressed a thought – a vision – a dream, permitting several levels of representation to be combined. The painting becomes an interpretation of the world, it is no longer a mere reflection. This mastery of the means of expression is what interests Fénéon, and he is also fascinated by the language of colour as a means of exalting an interior vision.

Théo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), The reading by Emile Verhaeren, 1903, o/c, 181 x 241 cm., Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent

He is a man who defines his tastes by means of his convictions, the strongest of which are his anarchist leanings. His idea of a new world is a response to the desire for a utopia, a word meaning a place which literally does not exist. ‘Utopia’ points us towards hope and an image of the future, making it possible to endure the crushing present. Fénéon was alive during a dark age of anarchy, fraught with attacks and bombings by militant activists, some of whom he knew; but he believed that artists could suggest the possibility of a better world through their work. Anarchist painters like Luce, Signac, Seurat, Pissarro, Van Rysselberghe and many others thought the same. Signac’s painting, In the time of harmony: the Golden Age has not in passed, it is still to come, was originally entitled In the time of anarchy.

Paul Signac, In the time of harmony: the Golden Age has not in passed, it is still to come (small replica [5]), 1896, o/c, 65.5 x 81 cm., The Kasser Mochary Foundation, Montclair, New Jersey, SIGNP.002

The painting depicts an ideal way of life on the Mediterranean coast, with people relaxing, working, playing and painting under a luminous sky. This vision of the future was a statement of faith in humanity, a bright image in opposition to Nietzsche’s view of the world.

In Fénéon’s analytical approach to colour and its effects, the question of the frame isn’t confined to its aesthetic aspect; it is connected to a global vision of art and its functions. This question is still current with the birth of the avant-garde in the 20th century, and thus he himself remains relevant as one century slips into another. He remains faithful to the artists he loves: Signac, Bonnard, and Seurat in particular (whom he will defend until the end of his life); but he also interests himself in the younger generation of Matisse, Modigliani, and the Futurists, who draw us into a different vision of the world.

Michel Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889), ‘Premier cercle chromatique de Mr Chevreul renfermant les couleurs franches’, in Des couleurs et de leurs applications aux arts industriels à l’aide des cercles chromatiques, 1864, Paris; private collection

Fénéon’s interest in colour allows him to penetrate every period. First of all he discovers the Impressionists – Monet, Manet and Degas – and then turns away from their naturalistic vision to follow the path just mentioned. Impressionism, based on the spontaneous glance, the present moment, and the representation of light, is an art linked to a concrete experience of the world. He detaches himself from it quite quickly, in order to follow new forms of expression based on transcendence, spirituality and philosophy. After the Neo-Impressionists he discovers the Nabis, just at the time when he is editor-in-chief of La Revue Blanche. His characteristically cool temperament is expressed in his habit of mocking reality, whilst his many different activities sum up his need not to stand still – always to stay in motion. He stops producing reviews from 1894, even though he continues to write, and publishes significant pieces in magazines and newspapers.

LD: Does the question of the frame remain important to him throughout his career?

IC: Mention of the frame itself disappeared quite quickly from his articles, but at the beginning of the 20th century Fénéon became interested in the plinths used to display objects and sculptures from his African and Oceanian collection. He used the famous Japanese maker of pedestals, Kichizo Inagaki, to highlight certain pieces in his collection. These plinths remake, as works of art, objects considered as purely functional in their native countries, such as pulleys for weaving looms or spoons with carved handles…

Whilst he was working at the Galerie Bernheim Jeune, Fénéon considered the frame not as a purely aesthetic object, but also as an object capable of enhancing the painting for sale to collectors. He was a collector himself, who knew the world of art-lovers very well. If there was a certain air of the random in his interiors, he knew that the collector would appreciate those frames which could act as a transitional area, binding the furnishings to the style of the room.

Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940), Intérieur avec Misia Natanson au piano, 1897, o/ card, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe

The Nabis, for example, did not seem shocked that their paintings were displayed on the wall with colourful tapestries, as can be seen in works which depict the homes of contemporary collectors – like those by Vuillard of the Natansons’ interiors. Rooms belonging to other connoisseurs were more sober: for example, those of Count Kessler, a great lover and patron of Maurice Denis, whose furnishings had been designed by the contemporary architect and decorator, Henry van de Velde.

LD: A single old photograph of the interior of Fénéon’s home has been discovered. Among the frames of the paintings from the Fénéon collection shown in the exhibition, are there some which we can be sure that he chose himself? Or do we lack enough information?

Édouard Vuillard, La Porte entrebâillée, 1891, o/card, and raking shot, Musée Angladon, Jacques Doucet Collection, Avignon

IC: We don’t have enough facts to reconstruct Fénéon’s house. We do know, however, that when he bought a painting from Jacques Doucet, La Porte entrebâillée by Vuillard, he kept the art deco frame ordered by Doucet from Eileen Gray. And he didn’t change the Neo-Impressionist frames which had been painted by the artists. As for white frames, it is difficult to know exactly whether they were borders of pale wood or white painted mouldings. Many questions remain unanswered, but it would be futile to try to draw any firm conclusions. The whole subject is fraught with individual subjectivity, which relates to aesthetics, the history of taste, and history itself, along with the many changes that occur over time.

LD: Let us now come to your pioneering work on frames, which began in 1987 with your thesis from the École du Louvre: how did you come to be interested in frames, and choose to work in this area?

IC: I became interested in the subject because I was often unhappy about the way paintings were displayed. The first time I felt this discomfort was during the time that the Impressionist collection was still housed at the Jeu de Paume. I thought that there was such a large disjunction between the painting and the frame. I was shocked that these canvases, considered to be the essence of modernity, were presented in heavy frames which were at the other extreme from the style of the painting; and my next thought was to wonder who had chosen such frames.

At that point – alongside the old frames chosen by the collectors and donors of the paintings – there were also modern frames designed by Germain Bazin [6], based on the written descriptions of the architrave mouldings and pale wooden frames used by the Impressionists. He had designed two patterns using exotic woods – one light, the other dark – which would between them harmonize with most of the paintings in the Impressionist collection: a light wood for Monet, and mahogany for Fantin-Latour. Germain Bazin was one of the first to take an interest in the subject of the Impressionists’ frames, and to publish an article on the designs he had introduced to draw attention to it [7]. He also bought 17th– 18th century Italian and Spanish frames for works by Cézanne and Manet. I photographed these displays, and made sketches with descriptions that I kept in a card index. These simple wooden frames created by Bazin were removed when the Musée d’Orsay opened.

My investigation was limited to what I could see without the pictures being taken down. Now, what’s really interesting, of course, is being able to see the back of a work – it can be very revealing. Around that time I met Marie-Catherine Sahut [8], who kept a file on the frames in the Louvre. She let me examine her archives, and encouraged me to continue studying paintings from the second half of the 19th century. Later, when I was working at the Musée d’Orsay, I was luckily able to add to the history of the frames in the collections, because I could then access the inscriptions on the backs of the paintings.  The files also contained old photographs in which the edges of the frames were sometimes visible, which made it possible to identify any reframings. In the 1980s, no one was interested any more in the history of picture framing. Frames could be altered on a whim or through changing fashion, which also made me very uneasy! It seemed to me then that the frame around the painting was not only important as a functional element of the work but also for the  coherence of the collection.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Danseuses montant un escalier, c.1886-1890, o/c, 39 x 89.5 cm., in a ‘Camondo’ frame, (bequeathed by Comte Isaac de Camondo to the Musée du Louvre, 1911), Musée d’Orsay

I realized too that there had been collectors who were interested in the subject, such – for example – as Comte Isaac de Camondo, who put his paintings by Degas into identical frames of a design approved by the artist. I explored the subject more deeply and with a more open mind, and I realized that what was a new subject for me had been tackled both by the artists themselves and by contemporary critics.

Later on at the Musée d’Orsay I was able to produce a tabulated description of empty frames in the collection, including notes on their style, dimensions, any inscriptions, and state of conservation, with accompanying photos. This list also allows us to track the history of reframings, etc., and to find and re-use antique frames from storage. It’s problematic, reproducing modern versions of the frames the artists themselves designed; reconstructions of this sort aren’t always successful. It’s a delicate question: everyone wants to do the right thing, but sometimes, by wanting to do what’s right, we end up with things which don’t work.

Making an inventory of the larger frames wasn’t easy, as the members were often taken apart and wrapped separately for reasons of storage. However, all the frames listed have now been labelled with a serial number to identify them. The management of frames has become altogether much more rigorous, quite simply because everyone has become aware of their value, both in historical and material terms. We’re pleased with the interest being shown in the subject, which for a long time has been a blind spot in the management of collections.

Isabelle Cahn, Cadres de peintres, 1989,  Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris

The Musée d’Orsay has played a pioneering rôle in this area. In 1987, Michel Laclotte [9] entrusted me with curating an exhibition on artists’ frames [Cadres de peintres]. I then took part in other exhibitions – in the Netherlands, in England, and again in Paris, at the Georges Bac gallery. Frame dealers and art historians, like Paul Mitchell, Lynn Roberts and others, had become interested in the subject at an early point, and established it as a genre of art history.

LD: After your thesis from the Ecole du Louvre, you concentrated on Impressionist frames?

IC: I was interested in Degas’s frames because the artist, who was very concerned with the presentation of his works, left recommendations on the designs, colours, and scale to be used when framing his paintings. This is also true of Pissarro, who worked with Pierre Cluzel [10].  Gradually, from one thing to another, from Impressionism to Neo-Impressionism, the field of research was expanding. My archives grew too, and I had the idea of ​​one day turning them into a book – which I’ve not yet been able to do, through lack of time. Whenever I visit museums or private collections, both in France and abroad, I always keep this project in mind. And my curiosity doesn’t stop at the 19th century – Matisse took a lot of trouble with his frames, as did other 20th century artists. The presentation of paintings is an infinitely vast subject; and behind it is the question of the space represented within the painting relative to the painting itself within the space of the real world:  this also fascinates me. This edgewise approach also makes it possible to tackle modernity in painting.

LD: Was it a surprise, at the time, to realize that the Impressionist frames were so colourful?

IC: Yes, a complete surprise. It was perhaps similar to the moment when we realized that Greek sculptures were painted! [laughs] These coloured frames were, all the same, very daring. But then we were tempted to think that the question of Impressionist frames had been solved, whereas in reality it cannot be, since the original frames – with the exception of some of Degas’s – have all disappeared.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Portrait d’amis sur scène (Ludovic Halevy & Albert Boulanger-Cavé), 1879, pastel & tempera/ paper, 79 x 55 cm; with the original frame designed by Degas, & painted by the artist to harmonize with the colours of the composition; Musée d’Orsay

LD: We are so used to seeing Impressionist paintings in antique giltwood frames that it’s hard to imagine the coloured originals… however, if we think of the artists’ approach to painting, it seems logical, as Fénéon would say.

IC: I’ll tell you a story. In my exhibition, Cadres de peintres, which took place in 1989 in the Musée d’Orsay, a section was devoted to the limits and the limitlessness of painting. I borrowed a tondo from Monet’s series Waterlilies, since the idea of the Waterlilies as an infinite, limitless decoration seemed to me an interesting illustration. The painting arrived in a round gilded frame, and I took it out of this and hung it on the wall unframed. It shocked a lot of people, especially some of my museum colleagues.

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Nymphéas, 1907, diam. 81 cm., with and without its frame, Musée d’Art moderne et contemporain de  Saint-Etienne 

LD: The tondo recalls the structure of the eye …

IC: The structure of the eye, the structure of thought, the vision of the universe as circular… every visual concept. It was experimental at the time; and its abruptness shocked the museum community,  which was much more conservative than it is today. Later generations – and the public today – are interested in the materiality of painting. It seemed to me that it was a pertinent subject to address.

LD: It was a question of the true rediscovery of Impressionist frames.

IC: The main thing is to ask questions and to rouse curiosity, so as not to settle into a routine way of looking.

LD: You were also interested in the subject of the artist’s frame, which did not exist as such in France before.

Georges Seurat (1859-91), Le Cirque, 1891, o/c, 186x 152 cm., Musée d’Orsay 

IC: It was exciting to discover what artists had designed themselves to present their paintings. Where these frames still exist, it is a pleasure and a satisfaction to find them. But artists’ frames are often fairly modest, and that’s what’s interesting. The ornamental frame, the museum frame, the collector’s frame – all these add something else to the work: perhaps a market value, perhaps a certain cultural or cult-like value. But artists’ frames are more subversive: they overturn a fixed idea of art. Four strips of wood around works that are now worth millions are shocking. And I like this paradox: the artist’s frame brings us back to the essence – the painter’s approach to the creative process.

Georges Seurat (1859-91), Le Cirque, 1891, o/c, 55.2 x 46.2 cm., and detail, Musée d’Orsay, RF1937-123

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Interview by Louise Delbarre, January 27, 2020: Louise is a curator at the Conservation des oeuvres d’art religieuses et civiles (COARC) of the city of Paris. She graduated from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in 2014 and is currently researching a PhD thesis on the frames of the French Symbolists at Panthéon-Sorbonne University.

With grateful thanks to Isabelle Cahn for her time.

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The exhibition was held in Paris in two parts:

– ‘Félix Fénéon (1861-1944): Les arts lointains’ at the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac from May 28 to September 29, 2019

– ‘Félix Fénéon (1861-1944): Les temps nouvelles, Seurat to Matisse’ at the Musée de l’Orangerie, from October 16, 2019 to January 27, 2020.

It will be held as one complete exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, under the title ‘Félix Fénéon, the anarchist and the avant-garde – from Signac to Matisse and beyond’

Félix Vallotton (1865-1925), Félix Fénéon at ‘La Revue blanche’, 1896, private collection

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[1] John Rewald, Félix Fénéon : l’homme qui désirait être oublié, Paris, l’Echoppe, 2010, 91 pp. Originally published in English in 1947 and 1948 in La Gazette des Beaux-arts

[2] Her work includes, amongst other pieces, Isabelle Cahn, ‘Les cadres impressionnistes’ in Revue de l’Art, n°76, 1987, pp. 57-59 ; Cadres de peintres, Paris, France, Réunion des musées nationaux : Hermann, 1989 ; ‘Degas’s frames’, The Burlington Magazine, 131, no. 1033, April 1989, p. 289 ; and ‘Edgar Degas, gold or colour’, in In perfect harmony : picture & frame, 1850-1920, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum/Kunstforum, 1995, pp. 129-138

[3] Isabelle Cahn, L’encadrement des tableaux au XIXe siècle : histoire, forme et fonction, dissertation, Ecole du Louvre, Paris, 1987

[4] Félix Fénéon, Œuvres plus que complètes, textes réunis et présentés par Joan U. Halperin, 2 vols, Geneva, Droz, coll. ‘Histoire des idées et critique littéraire’, 1970

[5] Signac’s original, large version of In the time of harmony… belongs to the Mairie of Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis

[6] Germain Bazin was curator of paintings at the Louvre from 1936 to 1965

[7] Germain Bazin, ‘Principes d’encadrement des peintures anciennes’, Mouseion, 1946, n° 55, p. 279-306. NB : Pauline Michaud’s doctoral thesis on the policy of framing at the Louvre during the first half of the 20th century is currently in preparation

[8] Marie-Catherine Sahut was a curator at the Louvre, responsible for the collection of 18th century French paintings

[9] Michel Laclotte was the chief curator in charge of the embryonic Musée d’Orsay, up to its opening in 1986

[10] Pierre Cluzel was the framemaker used by a number of artists in the second half of the 19th century. See Frédéric Destremau, ‘Pierre Cluzel (1850-1994) – Encadreur de Redon, Pissarro, Degas, Lautrec, Anquetin, Gauguin’, Bulletin de la société de l’histoire de l’art français, 1995; published 1996, pp 239-247