Henri Edmond Cross: Painter of Utopia

A short article on the anarchist painter Henri-Edmond Cross

"Of all of Seurat’s disciples, he was the one with the liveliest imagination, the deepest feeling and the most accomplished spirit." Emile Verhaeren

Organise! has featured a series of articles on artists who identified strongly with the anarchist movement. There have been articles in its pages on Pissarro, Signac, Luce, Steinlen and Delannoy. This time we look at the work of the French painter Henri Edmond Cross.

Henri Edmond Delacroix was born at Douai in northern France on May 20th, 1856 into a well off family of shopkeepers. A cousin who was a doctor noticed his interest in painting and helped him, even paying for his first drawing lessons. He went on to attend art school in Lille.

At first he painted in a realist style. Not wanting to be mistaken for the famous painter Delacroix, and with his English mother in mind, he changed his name to Cross, the English translation of the “croix” component of his surname.

In 1883 he took a trip to the south eastern corner of France and painted many landscapes. It was on this trip that he met the painter Paul Signac, who became his friend and was later to have a deep influence on him, both artistically and politically.

In the following year he co-founded the Société des Artistes Indépendants (Society of Independent Artists) which revolted against the hidebound traditionalism of the official Salon, and organised its own exhibitions. There he met many members of the Neo-Impressionists, like Georges Seurat and Charles Angrand. However, he continued to paint in a style influenced by Manet. Gradually, his colours became lighter and brighter, inspired as he was by the sunny landscapes of southern France, where he wintered every year because of his chronic rheumatism. By the late 1880s he was painting landscapes influenced by Monet and Pissarro.

He moved full-time to southern France in 1891 because of his illness and began to paint in a neo-Impressionist style. Here he was visited by the art critic Félix Fénéon, and by the painters Théo Van Rysselberghe and Paul Signac among others. It was significant that all three were very much identified with the anarchist movement in France. His first painting in this style was a portrait of his future wife, executed in the divisionist style, where colours are separated into dots and brush strokes.

Fénéon had became director of an art gallery, and he helped his friend and comrade by organising exhibitions and publishing his sketch books after his death.

Like the other artists that Cross exhibited with- Luce, Petitjean, La Rochefoucauld, Van Rysselberghe, Signac, Angrand, Seurat and the two sons of Pissarro,- Cross had become an anarchist and subscribed to the ideas of the anarchist theorist Kropotkin. They believed that science and technology would help liberate humanity both materially and spiritually. He painted landscapes where human figures blend with nature in harmony. He evoked a future anarchist utopia in these paintings. A he said: “I want to paint happiness; happy beings that men (sic) will become in a few centuries when pure anarchy will have been realised”. Signac had already painted a vast canvas depicting this future society first entitled Au Temps d’Anarchie (In The Time of Anarchy) and then Au temps D’Harmonie ( In the Time of Harmony) . Carefree work for the good of the community, free love, and the joys of doing nothing are depicted. Cross undertook a similar painting with his L’Air du Soir (The Evening Air) in 1894.

Like the other painters mentioned above, Cross contributed to the anarchist movement by donating illustrations to the anarchist paper Les Temps Nouveaux (New Times) edited by Jean Grave. He provided the cover illustration for the pamphlet À Mon Frère le Paysan (To My Brother The Peasant) written by the anarchist theorist and activist Élisée Reclus in 1899. The following year he did the same for Jean Grave’s booklet Enseignement Bourgeois et Enseignement Libertaire ( Bourgeois Education and Libertarian Education). He provided an illustration for the book of lithographs published by Les temps Nouveaux in 1905 and a drawing for the book Patriotisme, Colonisation.

However, he was conflicted by the need to provide propagandist illustrations and his reservations about compromising his artistic ideas, feeling constrained by the nature of the pieces he offered. This did not stop him on several occasions donating his works as prizes in fund raising lotteries for Les Temps Nouveaux.
Cross’s health was worsening, with increasingly poor eyesight and painful arthritis and he died on the 16th May 1910 of cancer at the age of fifty four. His fellow anarchist painter Van Rysselberghe provided a medallion for his tomb.

Signac saw him as an ‘impassive and consistent thinker, who is simultaneously a passionate and strange dreamer’. Cross, despite his painful illnesses, had revelled in the joy of painting and appreciation of great art works. His sensuous painting exerted an influence on a new generation of painters like Kandinsky, Derain and Matisse. Unlike Signac, whose children promoted and preserved his works, Cross had no such help and after his death his paintings were scattered.

The above article appeared in No. 81 of Organise! the Anarchist Federation magazine

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Oct 9 2015 14:52


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