Edited by Frédéric Frank, Marina Ferretti Bocquillon, Ortrud Westheider, and Michael Philipp

Prestel Publishing. 272 pages. £39.99. ISBN 978-3-7913-5773-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I’m not sure if the name of Henri-Edmond Cross is known to visitors to exhibitions in Britain? I suspect that, a few specialists apart, it would not arouse a positive response. But that could be because little of his work has been shown here. A quick check suggests that it may only be represented in one public collection, that of Walsall Art Gallery.

With this in mind, it’s a great pity that the exhibition this splendid book accompanies isn’t crossing the Channel. It goes a long way towards explaining why he’s considered important enough to warrant the attention he’s now receiving. To be fair, the introduction does acknowledge that, even on the Continent, he has been overlooked in some ways: “In recent years, no major retrospective has been devoted to the work of the neo-impressionist artist Henri-Edmond Cross, either in France or abroad”. It’s suggested that his “relatively meagre output and the fragility of his canvases” may have been among the reasons why would-be exhibitors have been reluctant to undertake large exhibitions of his work. It’s interesting to look at the list of lenders. France is naturally the main one, with the United States coming second, and then a scattering of items from Spain, Belgium, Germany, and a few other countries.

Cross was born in 1856 in Douai, France. His father was French and his mother English, and the family name was actually Delacroix. The reason why he changed it to Cross when he was a young artist is immediately obvious; he didn’t want to be confused with the older, famous French painter Eugène Delacroix, or with an academic artist called Henri-Eugène Delacroix.

Cross spent some time in England, having been sent there when he was eleven, and if the later example of him translating Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing, a work he admired, into French is anything to go by, he presumably had a good command of English. It’s difficult to know exactly how long he spent in England.  He didn’t visit the country again, though there was a planned trip with the painter Paul Signac which Cross pulled out of, according to Signac, because of objections from his wife. Not too much appears to be known about her, or at least little information is provided in Color and Light. Cross married her when persuaded by his parents that it was the proper thing to do, rather than living with her as his mistress.     

Cross was recognised as having talent by his father’s cousin who arranged for him to have a few lessons with the noted artist, Carolus-Duran. His main artistic training appears to have started in 1878 when he joined the studio of Alphonse Colas. He was also learning a great deal through regular visits to the Musée des Beaux Arts in Lille where he could study paintings by Corot, Courbet, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Delacroix. In 1881 he made the move to Paris that was necessary for any ambitious young artist.

It is important to note that Cross didn’t just suddenly appear as a neo-impressionist. His early work shows him to be talented and a good draughtsman, but working within what might be called a conventional framework. A fine self-portrait, Convalescent, from 1882-5, demonstrates how skilled he was (its title might also refer to the health problems that marred much of his life), and portraits of his mother, and Doctor Soins, who had initially encouraged the young Cross, further pointed to his craftsmanship. A garden scene in Monaco, and another of a village by the Mediterranean, along with an attractive canvas called Women Tying the Vine, indicate that Cross could easily have been succesful as a painter functioning within established boundaries had he chosen to do so. They also help us to appreciate his parents lack of understanding when he switched to working in a neo-impressionist manner once he encountered artists like Seurat and Signac. The family financing of his training simply didn’t envisage him throwing in his lot with the avant-garde. Cross was exhibiting here and there, and he had also discovered the attractions of the Mediterranean and would make regular visits to the region. In 1884 he met Signac, Georges Seurat, Albert Dubois-Piller, and Charles Angrand, and joined them in forming the Sociéte des Artists Indépendents, with whom he was to exhibit regularly until the end of his life. In 1885 Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, was exhibited, and the critic Félix Fénéon coined the term “neo-impressionism” to describe what Seurat and his associates were doing. But Cross, while knowing Seurat, Signac, and others of a similar inclination, had not yet become completely identified with them

In 1891 Cross decided to move permanently to the Midi, partly because he thought the climate might help alleviate some of the problems caused by the chronic rheumatism he suffered from. It is from around this time that his work begins to show definite signs of a neo-impressionist style, with pointillist applications of paint and heightened colours. It’s said of his work that it becomes more lyrical and points to a “pagan sensibility”. Maurice Denis said that Cross was “increasingly replacing the play of light with the play of colour”. And Cross himself said that he wanted to “paint happiness”.

One of the fascinating aspects of Cross’s approach to what his work represents is his interest in anarchism and in Nietzsche’s writings. The 1890s were a time of anarchist activity in Paris and elsewhere, with various strains in the movement, ranging from philosophical anarchism to the more violent anarchism of the deed. The latter led to bombings and assassinations, and was not what Cross and his friends like Signac ever had in mind.

They envisaged a utopian future in which men and women would commune peacefully with each other and the natural world. Nature was thought to be “a source of individual and social renewal”. To most people, especially those living in industrial towns and large cities, it would probably have seemed hopelessly naïve and idealistic. For an artist like Cross it provided much of the stimulus for his work. Many of his paintings represent his vision of such a society. They are focused on rural settings or on coastal scenes that look idyllic. The harsh lives of those labouring in the fields, or in fishing villages, are nowhere to be seen. As Daniel Zamani remarks when writing about Cross’s landscapes: “Works such as these ultimately reflect a romanticised view of provincial life that may have had little in common with the social reality of the figures depicted”.

And Cross rarely, if ever, looked at the urban environment in his work. There is one notable exception, and it’s quite a good painting.  Qui de Passy, dating from 1899, shows a barge and a small steamship on the river, with buildings in the background. It’s colourful, and well in the neo-impressionist style, and is striking, perhaps because it is so different from many of his other canvases.

Marina Ferretti Bocquillon, in her essay on “Henri=Edmond Cross and Germany”, says that the First World War rendered “the hedonistic credo of Cross’s generation obsolete”. The advent of dada, surrealism, and overtly-political art seemed to suggest that painting pictures of idealised nudes in imaginary situations was a way of hiding from reality. Cross’s belief in anarchism was genuine enough in its way, even if it was largely passive. He did help anarchist publications, such as the newspaper, Les Temps Nouveaux, sometimes with money and occasionally with drawings, though he elected not to sign them so that his parents wouldn’t be upset by his political leanings. He was, after all, supported by capitalist money for much of his life.

There is truth in the suggestion that Cross essentially lived a life apart from the wider society, but he wasn’t a hermit, hiding away from anything new and modern. The development of the rail network along the Mediterranean Coast had opened up the region and did lead to more tourists arriving. But it also enabled Cross to travel to see friends like Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, and for friends from Paris to visit him. And he went to Paris fairly often, sometimes for health reasons and also to see exhibitions and meet his dealer.

It’s unfair to criticise Cross too much for what he didn’t do in relation to reacting to the wider world and its realities. I have to admit that, in terms of its subject-matter, I tend to find a painting like the 1906-07 The Clearing somewhat risible. With its bevy of naked women gaily holding hands and dancing in a clearing in the woods, while others drape themselves languidly in a nearby tree, it could be designed to titillate the bourgeoisie likely to buy such a painting or view it in a gallery. I accept that this probably wasn’t what Cross intended. I think he genuinely imagined that he was creating a picture of an idealised society and that others would view it in the same spirit. Nietzsche talked of a “new symbiosis of man and nature in a state of Dionysian ekstasis”, which might be what Cross had in mind?

On the other hand, looking at the picture for its painterly qualities does bring out its attractiveness. And it shows how Cross can be said to have influenced Matisse and the Fauves. There is a riot of colour to be seen in The Clearing, and in The Forest, where again Cross places his female nudes in a setting where the colours of their bodies, reflecting the play of light, blend with the bushes and trees to create that harmony with nature that he proposed could exist in an ideal world. Some observers might argue that Cross’s landscapes lack realism from the colour aspect, but the Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren got it right when he said that the painter was no longer concerned with the “glorification of nature”, but rather with the “glorification of an inner vision”. In any case, the sheer delight when looking at Underneath the Cork Oaks, Toulon, Winter Morning, and Cap Layer more than outweighs the irregularities with something like The Flight of the Nymphs, where the nudes seem clumsily executed and the colours of little interest. Not every Cross canvas is a masterpiece.

I mentioned earlier that Cross suffered from health problems. His rheumatism got worse, and he had difficulties with his eyes. Despite these drawbacks he continued to travel and paint until it became  too onerous to carry on. What finally put paid to his career was when he was diagnosed with cancer. He died in May, 1910, just short of his fifty-fourth birthday.

Colour and Light is a superbly-produced book which pays tribute to an artist who seems to have been unfairly overlooked in many ways. It could be that his contemporaries like Seurat and Signac have tended to attract the attention of art historians, and that the advent of Matisse and the Fauves while Cross was still alive drew attention away from his use of colour as a basis for his paintings, though he may have some claims as an originator in this respect. And his intentions relating to the anarchist ideology represented in his work may have deterred some viewers, especially those with a commitment to more direct social commentary. Whatever the reason for his being sometimes overlooked, Colour and Light may help to restore his reputation.

The catalogue, was published in conjunction with the exhibition, Color and Light: The Neo-Impressionist Henri-Edmond Cross at the Musée des impressionnismes, Giverny, July 27th, 2018 to November 4th, 2018, and the Museum Barberini, Potsdam, November 17th, 2018 to February 17th, 2019. It has several well-written, informative essays, including one which looks at Cross’s works on paper (he sometimes used watercolours, as well as working with chalk, crayons, and charcoal), and another which describes his life in Le Lavandou, the area where he lived and which he said was “The most beautiful region in the world”. There is a lengthy bibliography, and a detailed chronology.