During the early years of the twentieth century, artists concentrated on the French Mediterranean coast in what has become known as the Atélier du Midi, the workshop of the south of France, and the birthplace of much of the Modernism that was to come. Among these was the Neo-Impressionist painter Henri-Edmond Cross (1856–1910), whose name recurs throughout the career of Paul Signac. In this article and its sequel tomorrow I give a brief account of Cross’s career and work, as a follow-on from my previous series on Signac.
Cross changed his name twice. Born as Henri-Edmond-Joseph Delacroix, he was no relative of Eugène Delacroix, so to distinguish himself from his namesake chose the Anglicised Henri Cross in 1881. Five years later, still dogged by confusion with other artists, and in a bid to make his name more clear from that of Henri Cros, he changed again to Henri-Edmond Cross.
He was born in 1856, and during childhood moved from Douai to Lille, in northern France. His artistic talent was spotted early, and he was initially taught by Carolus-Duran, who was later to teach John Singer Sargent. After training at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris he continued studying until 1881, when he first exhibited at the Salon.
Over the following decade Cross seems to have painted through a transition from sombre realism to plein air Impressionism, but very few of those paintings appear to have survived. In 1884, he was one of the founders of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, alongside Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. His friendship with Signac was particularly close, and lasted up to Cross’s death.
Cross had first visited the Mediterranean coast in 1883, and started spending much of each winter there, until he moved to Cabasson, near Le Lavandou, in 1891, to help his rheumatism. By the following year, when Signac moved to nearby Saint-Tropez, Cross had settled in the small seaside village of Saint-Clair, where he remained for the rest of his career.
The earliest accessible paintings by Cross appear from his first years in the Midi, 1891-92, when he painted this view of the Coast near Antibes. These were the months after the sudden and unexpected death of the leader of Divisionism and Neo-Impressionism, Georges Seurat. Many of Cross’s early Pointillist paintings are as gentle and delicate as this, with subtle colour and a fine stippled effect.
The detail below shows his use of contrasting colour in the tiny dots of paint, where he superimposes orange over a dark blue, and pale blue over yellow ochre, for instance. In addition to their simultaneous contrasts, these unify one passage with another, giving harmony of appearance. He also tended to place his paint dots in rows, giving rise to linear stippling in the water.
Beach at Cabasson (Baigne-Cul) from the same years shows three young boys on the otherwise deserted beach of the small coastal village where Cross first lived after he moved to the Midi.
A few of these early paintings seemed to be heading towards abstraction, as seen in this distant view of Les Îles d’Or, more properly known as les Îles de Hyeres, again painted in 1891-92. His dots of paint are organised into distinct rows in the middle distance.
Like Signac, Cross tried some more symbolic figurative works, including The Evening Air from about 1893, but these appear to have met with a similarly frosty critical reception as Signac’s.
During the last decade of the nineteenth century, with its increasing popularity with artists, Cross and Signac frequently met those in the younger generation, including Henri Matisse, André Derain and Albert Marquet. Cross also shared Signac’s politics, both being staunch anarchists.
By the mid-nineties Cross was starting to heighten the chroma in paintings such as this Landscape with Goats from 1895. The ‘law’ of simultaneous contrast is still in evidence in several of the passages here.
By the following year, Cross had turned the chroma up further in this Sunset over the Sea (1896). His marks have now changed from dots to coarser tiles of colour, which fuse in impasto in the sky.
Two Women by the Shore, Mediterranean from the same year is a little more restrained, and employs more rounded marks rather than rectangular tiles of colour.
The Promenade from 1897 is a lithograph in colours, so is more constrained in their chromatic range and intensity.
Sunset on the Lagoon, Venice is more puzzling with respect to dates. Although claimed to have been painted in 1898/1908, Cross doesn’t appear to have visited the city of Venice until 1903, and made his second and final trip there five years later in 1908.
Several of the artists in the Midi experimented with the use of photography, and this appears to have influenced Cross in his Bathers or Happy Bathing, which he started painting in 1899 and completed in 1902. Despite his chroma nearing Fauvist levels, Cross has retained his subtlety in the gradation and transition of colour.
A Canal in Venice is also claimed to date from 1899, and is a Pointillist oil sketch of gondolas in one of the smaller canals in Venice. As the detail below shows, Cross has applied his paint thickly in some of his marks, and has now discontinued superimposing contrasting colours.