Patrick Offenstadt will include this painting in his forthcoming revised Cross catalogue raisonné.
At the turn of the twentieth-century, Henri-Edmond Cross and Paul Signac (see lot 48) were the leading exponents in France of the divisionist style, a less doctrinaire version of the pointillist method that Georges Seurat had pioneered during the mid 1880s. Signac had been a founding member of the Neo-Impressionist movement, as those who gathered around Seurat called themselves, while Cross was a relative newcomer to the technique, having adopted it following the death of Seurat in 1891. The two painters became close colleagues and friends. Cross had been living, for the sake of his fragile health, in the small village of Saint-Clair on the Mediterranean; in 1892 he persuaded Signac to rent a cottage in nearby Saint-Tropez. They worked side-by-side, enamored of the brilliant light in the Midi. Signac, too, decided to make his home and primary studio there.
Although it is in no way apparent in his work, Cross struggled heroically to overcome a host of chronic and debilitating ailments, including severe rheumatism, in order to paint. Once commiserating with Henri Matisse, who had his own share of woes in the early years of the new century, Cross could honestly remind his friend that it would be impossible to suffer worse torments than he did himself. Cross was also referring to a sometimes crippling sense of self-doubt, which led him to continually question the aims and means of his art. Fortunately, however, like Signac, he could count on independent means, which enabled him to seek expensive treatments for his painful condition, while dedicating his life to painting.
By the end of the decade both Cross and Signac had abandoned the strict use of the pointillist dot, and instead employed narrow rectangular strokes of premixed color, with the addition of less regular marks where it seemed appropriate. Technique must be flexible and adaptable to the painter's motif, Cross believed, and he remarked to Signac that his ultimate aim was to have "technique cede its place to sensation" (quoted in I. Compin, H.E. Cross, Paris, 1964, p. 42).
Cross continued to spend time in Paris, for electrical treatments that temporarily relieved his pain, while keeping up with developments in the art world. He was a regular exhibitor at the annual Salon des Indépedants and later the Salon d'Automne. Promenade en barque au bois de Boulogne was likely done during a Paris sojourn, or back in his Saint-Clair studio based on sketches and notes he made in the capital. Here he has depicted a scene in the Bois du Boulogne. Cross also painted circa 1899 a lakeside gathering of women and children in Le Lac du Bois du Boulogne (Compin, no. 81; sold, Christie's, London 29 June 1987, lot 22). A pair of swans, this time with several offspring, appear again in Famille de cygnes, also painted in 1899-1900 (C., no. 82).
Like Signac and Maximilien Luce, another dedicated Neo-Impressionist, Cross possessed an idealistic temperament and held anarchist beliefs, which he expressed in idyllic scenes where men and women are engaged in rewarding, unexploited labor and possess sufficient leisure to harmonize their lives with nature. Cross often evinces a symbolist vein in his landscapes with figures, as well as the insight of a classicist in love with the ancient lore of Mediterranean culture. The motifs in the present painting may well allude to mythology. The three women in the boat may be likened to the three Graces or the original three Muses, one of whom was born of water. They served the god Apollo, the patron of music and the arts. The swan was sacred to Apollo; his chariot of the sun was sometimes depicted as being drawn by swans. For the Roman poet Virgil, swans were an auspicious sign, and Renaissance mythographers believed that in their whiteness swans symbolized daylight, love, purity and virtue. This tranquil scene set in the Bois du Boulogne, all water and light, is perhaps Cross's allegory for the noble and harmonious aspirations of art-making. Standing in for the artist is the oarsman, who through his efforts bears forward the three fine ladies in his charge, who represent the august tradition of art through the ages.