France 1856 – 1910
Madame Hector France (Portrait of Madame H. F.)
[Portrait de Madame H. F.] 1891
oil on canvas
canvas 208.0 (h) x 149.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1955
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The subject of this imposing portrait, Irma Clare (1849–1933), was married to Hector France, the French author best-known for the Orientalist tales Musk, hashish and blood 1886. The painting was shown in 1891 at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Indépendants in Paris, and announced the first major work of Cross’ newly adopted Neo-Impressionist style. Two years later, on 18 May 1893, the painter married his sitter and later in the year they moved to St-Clair, near St-Tropez, in the south of France.
Painted nearly life-size, Irma is shown against an elaborately nuanced backdrop. This is the conventional form for a society portrait, the sitter shown full-length, usually in fashionable dress, portrayed in surroundings which make reference to her interests or family background (see portraits 2, 3 and 4). The monumentality of Irma’s figure and the elegant fabrics of her gown are emphasised by the steeply tilted floor, and the impression of depth introduced by the receding tiles. The mottled pink and white rhododendrons at lower left interrupt the picture plane, giving the scene a Japanese inflection, adding a gloriously decorative quality to this harmony of yellows, blues and pinks. Palms, a frieze of fans on the balustrade, and the geometric patterns on the tiled floor add to the exotic mood. Viewed in profile, with a long train, Irma appears to ‘float chicly off-centre in an immaterial world approached from below’.1 Her hair sparkles and evaporates into the night air around her. The lamps, diffused light and overlay of shadows also contribute to the ambience and luxury of the scene. Perhaps Irma has adjourned to an external terrace or balcony, escaping the glittering soiree which is the source of light behind the woven bamboo chair at left. The whole painting is inflected with a grainy, atmospheric glow. Cross’ highly regular technique—a ‘screen’ of small, regular dots over a densely painted ground—and impeccably aligned marks give the work a certain mechanical facture, reminiscent of early colour printing.
Cross and Irma seem to be an instance of opposites attracting: he serious and secretive; she superficial and pleasure-loving. Maria, the wife of the painter van Rysselberghe (the couples were neighbours at St-Clair) judged Irma petty, base of nature and an idle gourmand.2 Other artist-friends, such as Angrand, on the other hand, found her fine company, enjoying the warm welcome at St-Clair, and praising her devotion to her husband in his later years.3 At St-Clair Cross turned to pure landscape, using a vivid palette of saturated colours, but Irma continued to model for him, appearing as one of the figures in Evening air 1893–94.4 In a later Portrait of Madame Cross c. 19015 we see a slightly older Irma, in a large hat and floral gown, seated in the garden, but easily recognisable by her pursed lips and somewhat bulbous nose.
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
- Robert Rosenblum, Paintings in the Musée d’Orsay, New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang 1989, p. 442.
- Françoise Baligand, Raphaël Dupouy, and Claire Maingon, Henri-Edmond Cross: études et l’oeuvres sur papier, Le Lavandou: Réseau Lalan 2006, p. 81.
- Isabelle Compin, H.E. Cross, Paris: Quatre Chemins-Editart 1964, p. 32.
- Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
- Musée d’Orsay, Paris.