Henri-Edmond CROSS | Hair [La chevelure]

Henri-Edmond CROSS
France 1856 – 1910

[La chevelure]
c. 1892
oil on canvas
canvas 61.0 (h) x 46.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1969
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

The model for this work was Cross’ future wife Irma, who also appears in the artist’s first Pointillist work, Madame Hector France. However, unlike that earlier portrait, Hair shows none of the personality, social position or general stature of the woman. Instead, here Cross has concentrated solely on the pattern created by the cascading wall of hair, which blocks even a tiny glimpse of her face.

Cross was an important member of the second wave of Divisionism or Pointillism—the artists who followed Seurat’s colour theories after his death. As a relative newcomer to the technique, Cross uses Hair to hone, improve and develop his application of Seurat’s theories.

Following in Degas’ footsteps, and subsequently in Seurat’s, Cross attempted the subject of a woman at her toilette. Cross had seen Seurat’s Woman powdering herself c. 18901 when Signac staged a posthumous Seurat retrospective which included the late work. Seurat’s painting is peppered with objects that assist in building an understanding of the woman through her surroundings. Cross dispenses with these, simplifying his work to focus on the woman’s hair and through this emphasis on simplicity, strip away all elements of his model’s surroundings. Unlike Seurat, Cross preserves the modesty of the woman from the viewer’s gaze with the barrage of hair entirely blocking her face.

Cross also reveals a subtle Japonisme aesthetic in the way he describes the hair. Although thoroughly simple in its design, the artist also evokes seaweed and the idea of a wave in the rhythm of his composition.2 He limits the number and intensity of colours, restricting himself to a muted palette of brown and mauve tones.

Cross remarked that art should reveal the ‘moral and physical beauty of humanity’ in the utopian future.3 Yet, despite its physical beauty, Hair is not typical of Cross’ pictorial ideals of this period. Like other Neo-Impressionists, he held firm anarchistic beliefs, which were inextricably intertwined with nihilist fin de siècle attitudes. As a consequence, the focus of many of his paintings from this period was on peasant women at work in lush landscapes. Nevertheless he remained concerned with the female figure. Hair can thus be viewed as an important link between the artist’s development of his Pointillist style and his initial foray into the female form.

Simeran Maxwell

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. Courtauld Collection, London.
  2. Françoise Cachin, ‘Les Neo-Impressionnistes et le japonisme, 1885–1893’, in The Society for the Study of Japonisme (ed.), Japonisme in art: an international symposium, Tokyo: Committee for the year 2001 1980, p. 235.
  3. Letter to Luce, January 1896, quoted in Isabelle Compin, H.E. Cross, Paris: Quatre Chemis-Editart 1964, p. 53.