Henri-Edmond Cross

French Painter and Printmaker

Born: May 20, 1856
Douai, Nord, France
Died: May 16, 1910
Saint-Clair, Var, France
Oh! What I saw in a split second while riding my bike tonight! I just had to jot down these fleeting things ... a rapid notation in watercolor and pencil: an informal daubing of contrasting colors, tones, and hues, all packed with information to make a lovely watercolor the next day in the quiet leisure of the studio.

Summary of Henri-Edmond Cross

One of the foremost practitioners of Neo-Impressionism, Henri-Edmond Cross produced an array of work in the final two decades of his life that played a pivotal role in the development of early twentieth century modernist painting. Initially drawn to naturalism and then Impressionism, he eventually adoped the Pointillist technique pioneered by his friend Georges Seurat, the leader of the Neo-Impressionists. However, the strict precepts of Pointillism did not appeal to Cross's predisposition for individual expression and, alongside Paul Signac, he began to develop a Neo-Impressionist technique that was more intensely colorful and varied in its application. The abstracted forms and dazzling colors that the artist displays in these paintings promptly paved the way for Fauvism.


Progression of Art



Painted at age 24 when the artist had just completed his formal studies, Self-Portrait shows the upper body of the artist, tightly cropped within the canvas, as he looks out towards the viewer while smoking a cigarette. The painting highlights both the academic training he had received up until this point, as well as his introduction to the mid-nineteenth century French school of Realism. Consequently, the customary pose of the artist, facing away from the canvas with the head turned to quarter-profile, as well as the contrast between the dark, muted colors and patches of light, demonstrates a form of Realism that was very much in line with the academic standards of the period. The overall tone of the painting with its brown and red colors applied using an expressive brushstroke also highlights the artist's desire to emulate Dutch Masters such as Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck.

During this period, the artist typically produced portraits and still lifes, genres popular with young painters like Cross who were hoping to make a name for themselves at the official Salon; although given the rough, visible handling of the brushstroke, it is unlikely that Self Portrait was ever meant for such formal environs. Moreover, the inclusion of the cigarette pays homage to the Realist painter and anarchist Gustave Courbet, who often depicted himself smoking a pipe as a way of indicating his anti-establishment views and introspective personality. The image of Cross smoking therefore belies a rebellious streak that hints at his leftist political sympathies, as well as anticipating his eventual involvement with avant-garde circles. Self-Portrait ultimately signals the artist's ability to take his influences and experiment with them, something Cross would do throughout his life and which eventually led him to be a leader of the Neo-Impressionist movement.

Oil on panel - Private Collection


Women Tying the Vine

Begun in 1889, Women Tying the Vine is an idealistic portrayal of a group of peasants working in a field in Provence. By the mid-1890s, Cross had abandoned the darker tones of his earlier work and brightened his palette in a series of rural scenes that demonstrate the influence of the Naturalist painter of peasant life Jules Bastien-Lepage. However, the loose brushstroke and heightened use of color in this painting goes beyond the detailed representation and matt finish of Bastien-Lepage's oeuvre, instead exemplifying Cross's subsequent engagement with Impressionist artists' desire to capture the effervescent effects of light. The influence of the Impressionist Camille Pissarro is especially noticeable in Women Tying the Vine, not only stylistically, but also in the Cross' choice of theme - both artists shared a desire to communicate in their work an edifying portrayal of simple peasant life. The depiction of the women working together in harmony with their natural environment conforms to the anarchist belief in an ancient nobility to a life lived in the countryside, away from the competitive and individualistic urban city - for instance, notice how there is something monumental in the statuesque way Cross has rendered the peasants.

It is also worth noting that Cross had yet to embrace the Divisionist techniques of his Neo-Impressionist friends, although it is evident from this painting that he had been absorbing their theories for a number of years, especially those of Georges Seurat. This can be seen in the way the artist has achieved a sense of luminosity in the work by juxtaposing hues of color, as opposed to mixing them together.

Oil on canvas - Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid


Madame Hector France

This full-length portrait of Irma Clare, the artist's future wife, depicts its subject as a fashionably dressed society woman, invitingly looking over her shoulder at the viewer. It was painted when the sitter was the mistress of the French author of Orientalist novels Hector France and the elaborate backdrop and foliage possibly alludes to the nature of her companion's writing, as was typical in society portraits of the time. It is certainly the case that the flowers on the lower left that burst onto the picture plane highlight the influence of Japanese art, hugely popular at the time among both the Impressionists and Symbolists alike.

However, what would have been most striking to Cross's contemporaries is the Pointillist 'dot' he has employed, marking his first ever use of the technique pioneered in the 1880s by the Neo-Impressionist friends he had been exhibiting with for the best part of a decade. By the early 1890s, the leading practitioners of Neo-Impressionism such as Paul Signac had freed Pointillism from a pseudo-scientific aspiration to capture objectively the effects of light, instead exploiting the decorative and poetic potential of the technique in order to present images that produce harmonious surface patterns. Perhaps this is the reason that Cross, who had always been determined to use paint as a form of individualistic expression, was only now willing to deploy Pointillism, seeing in it for the first time a means to convey his own personal artistic vision. This is evident in the way Cross uses Pointillism to provide the composition with a dreamlike atmosphere, or what one contemporary critic Robert Rosenblum described as the pictures "granular, atmospheric glow," produced by creating a precise layer of dots over the densely painted background. Meanwhile, the magnificent color transitions further this sense of otherworldliness, a factor that provoked Signac into praising the painting for its imaginatively applied decorative qualities.

Within two years of completing the painting, Cross and Irma were married and had moved to the South of France. The portrait had by then become particularly important for the couple as a representation of their new life together and was proudly hung in their house in Saint Clair.

Oil on panel - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

c. 1893

Evening Air

Evening Air depicts three sets of women languidly enjoying themselves beneath a group of trees set within an idyllic coastal landscape, while the dreamlike imagery and subtly applied chromatic scale the artist employs produces an overall mood of tranquillity. The calm atmosphere pervading the picture is complemented in the sculptural repose of the figures and the stillness of the boats that seem to hover above the sea, features that nullify any suggestion of movement by imbuing what is depicted with sense of grandeur and permanence. Moreover, the Neo-Impressionist technique the artist has used reduces the optical illusion of perspective and volume by emphasizing the flatness of the canvas, maintaining an equilibrium throughout the picture that integrates the representation of the women into the environment. Cross thus communicates a peaceful and conflict-free co-existence between humankind and nature, a harmonious state of affairs that is further enhanced by the way that several of the women appear to emulate with their postures the patterns of their surroundings. For instance, the group of women on the far left reproduce in their gestures the pattern of the tree trunk to the right of them, while the woman seated in the foreground of the picture mimics with her face in profile and her outstretched arm the silhouette of the larger of the boats. The artist thus exploits content and form in order to produce a unified, decorative whole.

The poetic and lyrical force of the painting is greatly indebted to the irregular, more expressive and larger brushstrokes that the Neo-Impressionists had replaced the Pointillist dot with by the mid-1890s. For Signac, this was a necessary evolution that enabled greater personal creativity and he was particularly impressed with the way Cross was able to use this to convey emotion in paintings such as Evening Air. The larger brushstroke also provides each mark with more autonomy and richness, a technique that treats color as a plastic entity in its own right that is not subject to the dictates of naturalism, a development that would have a profound effect on Fauvist painters such Henri Matisse. This younger artist saw Evening Air in Signac's Saint-Tropez house in 1904 and he would go on to emulate its harmonious Arcadian imagery in his own (iconic and influential) painting Luxe, Calme et Volupté which he produced in the same year.

Considered to be one of the artist's most important paintings then, Evening Air was initially Cross's response to a challenge from Signac that both artists produce a "decorative monument" to the Midi region of France that they both loved. Both this painting and the one Signac would go on to paint, entitled The Time of Harmony (c. 1893), use such a homage to the Mediterranean in order to portray a utopian anarcho-communist future. For instance, the abundance of light and water in the coastal settings of each painting would have been recognized by fellow adherents to the cause as a reference to a model setting for the ideal society. However, while Signac includes overtly political motifs in his painting, the Classical thrust of Cross's more ambiguous imagery, as well as the more subdued tones of color, could be seen to convey more of a feeling of personal nostalgia for a lost and unattainable mythical Golden Age, rather than bearing a message of unadulterated hope.

Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

c. 1904


Depicting a wide path through a wooded area, Landscape offers an example of how Cross adapted his style from oil painting into watercolor. To the left of center can just be made out an indistinct group of people outlined in crayon, while to the right of them there are some more figures who appear to be walking along the path. Meanwhile, parts of the paper are still visible in places, conveying a sense of intense sunlight.

As can be seen here, Cross uses looser, more "Impressionistic" brushstrokes in his watercolors than in his oil paintings, providing the image with a feeling of spontaneity. Watercolor was therefore important to Cross as it was a medium that allowed him to capture the transitory effects of nature. One can imagine him coming upon such a motif and pausing quickly to produce this work before continuing on his way.

Watercolor and crayon on paper - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The Flight of the Nymphs

In The Flight of the Nymphs, three nude women are displayed cavorting in the clearing of a lushly decorated woodland while a male figure looks on, his own nakedness concealed by the undergrowth. Nevertheless, given the title of the painting, the image can be interpreted more specifically as a depiction of a scene from the poem "L'après-midi d'un faune" by the French writer Stéphane Mallarmé, in which one of these mythical half-man and half-goat creatures spies on some nymphs before frightening them away with his sexual advances. This possible allusion to poetry is fitting, given Cross's own stated desire to "paint in verses", observable in the lyrical presentation of the arabesque female forms, as well as the melodious use of color throughout the canvas. At any rate, the entwining of mythological imagery within a paradisal landscape is indicative of the work that Cross produced in the final decade of his life.

Around the time that The Flight of the Nymphs was painted, Cross along with Signac had begun to use oblong brushstrokes, a technique which favors a more mosaic-like structure over the smooth chromatic transactions seen in their earlier work. The new technique also accommodated for Cross's growing fascination with the depiction of the nude, both male and female, allowing him to exploit the more heterogenous surface to differentiate between the figures and their surroundings, thus endowing the body with a greater prominence than in previous paintings. For instance, in The Flight of the Nymphs, the artist distinguishes the women from the rest of the picture by including dark patches of color to areas of their bodies, producing shadow effects that enhances each figure with volume and three-dimensionality. The pictorial dominance in particular of the two centrally placed women is further consolidated by the way that they take up positions at the front of the canvas, allowing them to tower over their natural habitat including the trees, which have been relegated to the background. Moreover, his new-found interest in focusing on the nude in many of his final paintings also reveals a growing admiration for the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly the philosopher's exultation of Dionysian revelry and abandon. Whether performing a bacchanalian dance in celebration of nature or fleeing from the unwanted advances of the faun, Cross's representation of the female figures here displays his ability to evoke in his work poetic resonances from the most simplistic-seeming imagery.

Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Biography of Henri-Edmond Cross

Childhood and Education

Born in the commune of Douai in northern France, Henri-Edmond Cross (nee Henri-Edmond-Joseph Delacroix) was the only child of Alcide Delacroix and Fanny Woollett. The family lived in Douai until 1865, when they moved to city of Lille, near the Belgian border in northern France. While there, Dr. Auguste Soins, a cousin of his father, noticed Cross's artistic talent and helped finance drawing lessons with Carolus-Duran, a Realist painter who lived nearby and who had taught John Singer Sargent. Cross studied under Duran for only a year before moving to Paris in 1875 to study briefly with François Bonvin, before returning again to Lille to study under Alphonse Colas at the Écoles Académiques de Dessin et d'Architecture in 1878. By 1881 he had moved back to Paris, where he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts to work with Emile Dupont-Zipcy, another artist who originally came from Lille.

Early Period

In 1881, Cross began painting in earnest and exhibited his work for the first time at the Salon des Artistes Français. It was also the year when he decided to change his name to Henri Cross in order not only to distinguish himself from the very famous Eugène Delacroix, but also from an artist called Henri-Eugène Delacroix who displayed work at the same Salons (he would change his name a second time in 1886 to Henri-Edmond Cross). His works from this period demonstrate not only his academic training, but also the profound influence that his Realist teachers had on him.

Chance meetings in the early 1880s would prove significant for Cross's artistic development. While on a trip to the Alpes-Maritimes in 1883, the artist met Paul Signac, who would be a lifelong friend and artistic interlocutor. He also met Claude Monet that year, whose influence can be seen in the shift in Cross's brighter use of color and decision to paint landscape (he had previously primarily concentrated on portaits and still-lifes). Crucially, Cross was one of the co-founders of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, a group of avant-garde artists who were disatisfied with the edicts of the official Salon and decided to mount their own exhibitions independently. Through this group, he met other avant-garde artists such as the pioneer of Neo-Impressionism Georges Seurat.

Although he would not adopt the Pointillist technique of the other members of the Société des Artistes Indépendants until the following decade, like them he considered himself an anarcho-communist, convictions that manifest in his work throughout his career. Art historians such as Richard Thomson believe that Cross's paintings in general can be read as representing an anarchist vision of a world in which small groups of people live in harmony with one another and their natural environment.

Mature and Later Period

In 1891, Cross produced his first paintings using the Neo-Impressionist technique that he is best known for today. His first painting using Pointillism was the portrait Madame Hector France (1891), which portrays his then lover Irma Clare, who he would eventually marry in 1893. Probably due to health issues such as rheumatism that had already begun to take a toll on the artist, it was also around this time Cross moved to Saint-Clair, a small hamlet in the south of France. After receiving a letter from Cross detailing the beauty of the landscape, Signac soon followed him to the Midi, settling in nearby Saint-Tropez in 1892. The two artists subsequnetly became even closer and hosted other artists such as Henri Matisse and André Derain at their gatherings, typically held in Cross's garden. The two artists also shared ideas and in about 1895 began to develop a technique that used broader brushstrokes to create what was essentially a looser version of Pointillism, thus allowing for more individual expression. This technique, which would become characteristic of so-called second generation Neo-Impressionism, also placed more of an emphasis on color as an entity in its own right, not conditioned by appearances in nature.

As he grew older, Cross began to experiment using watercolors painted in front of nature, offering the artist the speed and spontaneity his works in oils did not (most of which were painted in his studio). In a letter to his friend Charles Angrand, a fellow Neo-Impressionist, he wrote: "Over the past few days, I rest from my canvases by trying watercolor and sketching with this medium. It is fun. The absolute necessity of being fast, bold and even insolent, brings into work a kind of benevolent fever after months of languor spent on paintings whose first idea was unconsidered."

Cross's first solo exhibition took place in 1905 at Galerie Druet in Paris, in which thirty paintings and thirty watercolors were displayed. The show received significant critical acclaim, beginning a fruitful period of the artist's career; the last five years of Cross's life were unusually productive, both in artistic output and in exhibitions that featured the artist. Unfortunately, Cross's health deteriorated quickly in 1909 and after being treated for cancer in Paris he returned to Saint-Clair, where he died shortly before turning 54.

The Legacy of Henri-Edmond Cross

Although he was a central figure in late-nineteenth century French artistic circles, Henri-Edmond Cross's influences on younger painters in the following century have often been undervalued. This is in part due to the comparatively small size of his oeuvre because of the poor health that he suffered from a young age; the artist often had trouble with his vision and sometimes could not paint for long stretches of time due to arthritis. Today, many of Cross's paintings have been lost, adding an extra hurdle to art historians wanting to produce new scholarship on him, while the amount of his work in private collections has done little to promote him to new audiences.

In fact, due to his abstract and expressive use of pure color, Cross had a significant impact on the group of artists who would become known as the Fauves. Recent exhibitions have consequently begun to reframe him as a crucial figure in the development of twentieth-century modernism, including one held at the Musée des Impressionnismes, Giverny in 2018.

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