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
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
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 - 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