Important Art by Henri-Edmond Cross
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.
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.
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.