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28 July 2021

An anarchist on the Riviera

Henri-Edmond Cross envisaged the Mediterranean as a utopia for the deserving working man.

By Michael Prodger

In the winter of 1910, an exhibition of paintings entitled “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” opened at the Grafton Gallery in London. Organised by the Bloomsbury critic and painter Roger Fry, it was the first opportunity most British art fanciers had had of seeing the work of the, by then, not-so-new avant-garde artists from across the Channel. Among the painters showcased were Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and a group who painted in dots of bright colour, the pointillists and divisionists.

The exhibition was a roundly condemned failure, yet by 1924 its importance had become clear when Virginia Woolf wrote that it had altered the very nature of art: “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” At the time, however, both critics and public saw the paintings as not just a bad joke but an offensive one. Robert Ross, himself a gallerist and the art critic of the Morning Post, was among those rattled by the show: “To discuss the ‘pavement’ art of MM. Denis, Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross and Georges Seurat and others would be a waste of time, for anyone sufficiently idle and mindless could reproduce them,” he wrote. This was merely throat-clearing before a spectacular, indeed unhinged, blast: “The relation of M Henri Matisse and his colleagues to painting is more remote than that of the Parisian Black Mass or the necromantic orgies of the Decadents to the religion of Catholics,” he hollered. “And if the movement is spreading it should be treated like the rat plague in Suffolk. The source of infection [the pictures] ought to be destroyed.”

They weren’t, and it is hard to see today what aerated Ross to such an extraordinary degree. The work of those “pavement” artists in particular, especially their images of the south of France, offer dreamy visions of colour-infused hillsides, sunshine, sea and cicada-chirrups. And at the heart of the pointillist group was the little-lauded but influential Henri-Edmond Cross. It was Cross (1856-1910) who was a major influence on Matisse and whose example lay behind the radical colour experiments of the Fauves (“the wild beasts”) in the middle years of the 1900s.

[see also: How Josiah Wedgwood’s Frog Service depicted Britain in chinaware]

Cross, however, was not what he might have seemed. He was born Henri-Edmond-Joseph Delacroix in northern France to a French father and English mother, and changed his name to Henri Cross (from the “croix” of Delacroix) to differentiate himself from the great romantic painter, and later to Henri-Edmond Cross to distance himself from the minor painter Henri Cros. He trained in Lille and in Paris, including a stint in the studio of Carolus-Duran, the painter of exceptionally soigné society portraits who taught John Singer Sargent when he arrived from America.

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Although his early work consisted largely of portraits and still-lifes in muted tones, Cross was no genteel jobbing artist. In 1884, disillusioned by the selection policies of the official Salon, he was one of the co-founders of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, an exhibiting society of peers. His own work, especially his landscapes, gradually lightened in hue under the influence both of the impressionists, who held their last group exhibition in 1886, and of the winters he spent at a house called the Maison Perdue (Lost House) in Cabasson on the Côte d’Azur, where he would go to ease his rheumatism, and where he first met Paul Signac. In 1891 he settled in the region permanently, buying a home in the hamlet of Saint-Clair, in the garden of which he entertained younger innovative artists such as Matisse, Signac and André Derain.

What linked these men was not just painting but radical politics. Along with the likes of Camille Pissarro, Maximilien Luce and the Belgian artist Théo van Rysselberghe, they were all interested in anarchism and were friendly with anarcho-communist theorists such as Jean Grave. Although their paintings, so leisured and tranquil, would seem to have nothing to do with such a hard-line political philosophy, part of what drew the artists to the cause was that anarcho-communists saw them as leading players in an ideal society and wanted art that was beautiful and socially engaged rather than merely propagandist.

For Cross this was liberating. As he wrote to Signac: “Until now, the pictures dealing with the theme of anarchy always depicted revolt either directly or indirectly, through scenes of poignant misery. Let us imagine instead the dreamed-of age of happiness and well-being and let us show the actions of men, their play and their work in this era of general harmony.” A painting such as this one, View of Cape Leyet of 1904, now in the Musée de Grenoble, is therefore not just an image of a Mediterranean cove in the waning summer light but a fantasy, a picture of the utopian world to come, a playground for the working man when the anarchists had toppled the old world order. This was a pervasive idea that reached its apogee that same year in Matisse’s dreamlike reverie Luxe, Calme et Volupté, one of the foundational paintings of 20th-century art.

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Cross painted his picture in a hybrid of pointillism and divisionism; the first being construction by dots, the second – again using dots and dabs – a scientifically based style that separates colours on the canvas so that they mix optically in the eye. It is a mosaic method that gives the picture an appropriately melting quality as the setting sun dissolves the harder-edged forms of trees and rocks into liquidity. Blues and mauves are usually the tones of the disappearing horizon, but here Cross uses them in the foreground, finding a spray of unexpected colours in the dark side of backlit trees and scrub foliage.

The painter Maurice Denis noted that, “Cross has resolved to represent the sun, not by bleaching his colours, but by exalting them, and by the boldness of his colour contrasts… The sun is not for him a phenomenon which makes everything white, but is a source of harmony which hots up nature’s colours, authorises the most heightened colour-scale, and provides the subject for all sorts of colour fantasies.”

Signac put it another way, finding in Cross’s paintings such as this one, “the joy of painting, the love for delicate harmonies, something undefinably hesitant and mysterious and unexpected”. The colours in the View of Cape Leyet are both an in- tensification of those he found on the spot and they also stand autonomously, with Cross introducing whatever shades he needed to make a harmonious picture. As he said: “We always proceed from an impression of nature.”

This is a world where post-anarchist man could live at peace: the sea down below is empty of boats (although Cross frequently painted around St Tropez, he rarely included working craft or the workaday side of the port); the crescent of the cliff is a place for silent contemplation; and the fast-changing brilliance of the scene excludes everything but the contentment of sun on an upturned face.

Cross found himself in this state only infrequently. The conjunctivitis that had first manifested itself in the 1880s became ever more severe, and his rheumatism more disabling. In 1909 he travelled to Paris to be treated for cancer and in early 1910 returned to Saint-Clair, where he died just days before his 54th birthday. His early death meant that he never saw what sort of utopia his unspoilt Riviera became. When he wrote that “I would like to paint happiness, the happy beings who men can be in a few centuries,” he didn’t envisage a haven for plutocrats in superyachts. 

[see also: The mysterious and unsettling pictures of Paula Rego]

This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special