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Henri-Edmond Cross - Biography and Legacy

French Painter and Printmaker

Movement: Neo-Impressionism

Born: May 20, 1856 - Douai, Nord, France

Died: May 16, 1910 - Saint-Clair, Var, France

Henri-Edmond Cross Timeline

"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."

Henri-Edmond Cross Signature
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Biography of Henri-Edmond Cross

Childhood and Education

Archival photograph of the central marketplace in Douai, Cross's hometown (c. 1900)
Archival photograph of the central marketplace in Douai, Cross's hometown (c. 1900)

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

The painting <i>Convalescent</i> (c. 1880-85) has long been thought to be a self-portrait of the artist and stands as a testament to Cross's failing health even as a young man.
The painting Convalescent (c. 1880-85) has long been thought to be a self-portrait of the artist and stands as a testament to Cross's failing health even as a young man.

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

Photograph of Saint-Clair (c. 1900)
Photograph of Saint-Clair (c. 1900)

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.

Painted by the artist's friend Maximilien Luce, (c. 1895), the work shows an older Cross sitting in his studio in Saint-Clair
Painted by the artist's friend Maximilien Luce, (c. 1895), the work shows an older Cross sitting in his studio in Saint-Clair

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.

Most Important Art

Zoom imageHenri-Edmond Cross Famous Art

Self-Portrait (1880)

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.
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Content compiled and written by Ximena Kilroe

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Ximena Kilroe
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 09 Sep 2019. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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