From Seurat to Matisse, Henri-Edmond Cross and Neo-Impressionism

Le Cateau Cambrésis, Musée départemental Matisse, from 11 March to 10 June 2012

Henri Edmond Cross, who died prematurely and childless, though he was a pillar of Neo-Impressionism, has been relatively ignored. Now, the exhibition at the Musée Matisse, in Le Cateau-Cambrésis after its stop at the Musée Marmottan from October 2011 to February 2012, explores the major role he played in liberating the use of color. Although this exhibition juxtaposes, as it did in Paris, Cross’ works with those of the fellow painters with whom he was in contact throughout his career, it focuses above all on the artist’s oeuvre and ends naturally with Cross’ relationship with Matisse, revealing the influence each had on the other. The chronological itinerary leads the visitor from the beginnings of Neo-Impressionism to the birth of Fauvism. The very complete volume published for the occasion, is the fruit of a collaboration between two museums, presented in French and in English with a detailed time line of Cross’ life ; however, this is not a catalogue in the strict sense as the works serve only to illustrate the essays.

1. Henri Edmond Cross (1856-1910)
Calanque des Antibois, 1891-1892
Oil on Canvas - 65.1 x 92.3 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Photo : John Hay Whitney Collection
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The exhibition begins with a film on the artist ; in the same room, panels remind visitors of the differences between Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism and Fauvism while a pedagogical installation provides a very thorough explanation of Divisionism, based on the use of juxtaposed colors to create optical images, following the theory of complementarity and the simultaneous contrast of colors.

Cross’ real name was in fact Henri-Edmond Delacroix, a heavy burden for a painter which is why he chose to anglicize it. His first works are painted with realism and in somber tones. He met Georges Seurat at the first Salon des Indépendants in 1884, where he would continue to participate regularly as was the case also for the Salon des XX in Brussels, later the Salon de la Libre Esthétique. Two years later, in 1886, Seurat exhibited A Sunday Afternoon at the Ile de la Grande Jatte, the founding work for Divisionism. In a break with Impressionism, the artists painted in their studios, embracing an intellectual, recomposed, methodical art in search of harmony rather than a strict replica of reality. This art was impregnated with scientific principles as Seurat sought inspiration in Chevreul [1], Ogden Rood [2] or even Charles Blanc [3] while Signac wrote his treatise D’Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionisme.
The exhibition creates an exchange between Cross’ paintings and the works of the early Neo-Impressionists such as Dubois-Pillet, Luce, Van Rysselberghe and Angrand. Following Seurat’s premature death in 1891, his artistic experimentation was taken up by Paul Signac. That same year, Cross settled down in Saint Clair, Var region, and was joined by Signac in 1892 ; as happened to many others, his discovery of the south resulted in a luminous and colorful source of inspiration. Two canvases represent the start of Neo-Impressionism : The Beach at Vignasse, which from far away looks like a vibrant monochromatic piece made up of light and circular strokes, is in fact composed of three horizontal bands which impart a sense of serenity, following the theories of Charles Henry [4] ; in another example, La Calanque des Antibois is entirely made up of two complementary colors : blue and orange (ill. 1). Bereft of human life, these two motionless landscapes project a sense of eternity, far from the passing instants captured by the Impressionists.

2. Henri Edmond Cross (1856-1910)
The Farm in the Morning, 1893
Oil on Canvas - 65 x 92 cm
Nancy, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy

3. Henri Edmond Cross (1856-1910)
The Farm in the Evening, 1893
Oil on Canvas - 65 x 92 cm
Private Collection
Photo : all rights reserved

However, Cross also observed the different moments in the day : The Farm in the Morning (a work given to Matisse) and The Farm in the Evening (given to Signac) reveal his interest for the effect of light on colors, colder in the morning, warmer in the evening ; humble figures - distillers or a peasant woman carrying a basket - inject life this time into the two compositions (ill. 2 and 3). The influence of Japanese fashion can be felt and we glimpse a new, more decorative treatment of lines, in the ondulating smoke or the twisted tree trunks. The museum was not able to obtain the loan for Evening Air, a key work residing at d’Orsay and currently exhibited in the Debussy exhibition (see article in French) ; Cross painted this work after a suggestion by Signac who wanted each of them to imagine their dream of happiness, he himself producing At a Time of Harmony. The exhibition as well as the catalogue evoke the Symbolist leanings of both Cross and Signac, insisting also on the importance of music in their paintings full of studied rhythms and sonorous colors. In Mediterranean Shores, Cross chose intense colors and joins the vein of Puvis de Chavannes by placing his feminine figures here also in an idyllic landscape which is restyled and treated in a decorative manner. This is because the group’s artists, while considering in the early 1890’s that light stripped color of its content and wishing to underscore this finding by adding white to their compositions, finally abandoned this effect of crystalline whiteness and chose instead to exalt and liberate color in works of vibrant and imaginary shades, applying a much broader stroke.

4. Henri Edmond Cross (1856-1910)
Provencal coast, Le Four des Maures, 1906-1907
Oil on Canvas - 73 x 92 cm
Douai, Musée de la Chartreuse
Photo : Musée de la Chartreuse

In the years between 1900-1910, the imaginary landscapes tend to communicate an emotion. The View of Menton for example, does not correspond to an actual point of view ; divided into bands and colors, it sparkles with "tessera" touches, which become square and regular in Le Four des Maures, the artist’s masterpiece, a totally abstract work when viewed close up (ill. 4).

The exhibition at Cateau-Cambrésis emphasizes Cross’ watercolors, less structured than those by Signac, and also more spontaneous. In fact, the painter worked in a free, fluid and direct manner without resorting to lines or drawing, evoking the light and the transparency in a very poetic frugality of means and had no qualms in letting areas of paper show. Matisse would be drawn to this production on paper.
The last room, finally, highlights the rise of Fauvism. Cross’ paintings hang next to those by Manguin, Camoin, Valtat, Matisse also who joined Signac in Saint Tropez in 1904. Working alongside these future Fauves, Cross let go, exploring his imagination, in an explosion of color, pursuing a new infatuation for feminine figures which provided him with "harmonies of form and unsuspected hues", painting in blocks with green shadows which reflect the influence of Fauvism (ill. 5).

5. Henri Edmond Cross (1856-1910)
The Wood, 1906-1907
Oil on Canvas - 46 x 55 cm
Saint-Tropez, Musée de L’Annonciade
Photo : Jean-Louis Chaix – Ville de Saint-Tropez

Matisse sought out Cross’ company, discouraged by Signac : "his self-confidence crushes me and makes me look in my eyes as a poor man without will power, with no follow-through in my ideas and even without means (...). I regret being able to see Cross only very rarely" ; nevertheless, he painted a series of watercolors with him, colored annotations, without any traces of drawing, interpreting large spaces vibrant with light but with no line or perspective.
Matisse tried in vain to comply with the Divisionist discipline and gave Cross Parrot Tulips painted in a very broad pointillist technique. He finally abandoned Neo-Impressionism which, in his mind, observed an overly formal theory. Despite this, the experience and his friendship with Cross constituted an essential stage in his transition to Fauvism which appeared in Collioure a year later in 1905 and where he was joined by Derain ; the museum in fact presents La Moulade (private collection), which shows perfectly his search for the construction of surface and light through color ; the motif is not in fact the end but rather a pretext, just like in Cross who Emile Verhaeren, his friend, described when he wrote : "Of all of Seurat’s disciples, he was the one with the liveliest imagination, the deepest feeling and the most accomplished spirit."

Curators : Dominique Szymusiak, Françoise Baligand

Collective work, Cross et le néo-impressionisme. De Seurat à Matisse, Hazan 2012, 240 p., 29€. ISBN : 9782751405897

Visitor information : Musée départemental Matisse, Palais Fénelon, 59360 Le Cateau-Cambrésis. Tel : +33(0) 3 59 73 38 00. Open every day except Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.. Admission : 5 to 7€ (reduced : 3€).

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, mercredi 4 avril 2012


[1] De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs, 1839.

[2] Modern Chromatics with Application to Art and Industry, 1879.

[3] Grammaire des arts du dessin, 1867.

[4] Introduction à une esthétique scientifique, August 1885,Revue contemporaine.

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