In the early 1880s Odgen Rood, Michel-Eugène Chevreul and Charles Henry each published independent scientific theories of light and color. Their analytical discussions concerning the differentiation between color-light and color-pigment, and the analogies they drew between musical theory and emotive line, provoked the interest of a group of young artists who had become increasingly frustrated by the Impressionists's lack of a systematic, disciplined approach. In response to these scientific findings, these artists began to experiment with optical mixing in their painting, creating forms out of small dots of pure pigment. Georges Seurat's Un dimanche d'été à L'ile de la Grande Jatte (de Hauke, no. 162; coll. Art Institute of Chicago) introduced the public to their new approach when it was exhibited in 1886, and from then on he and his associates were called the Neo-Impressionists, Pointillists or Divisionists. Though Cross was friendly with many of the figures of the Neo-Impressionist group, he did not start painting divisionist pictures until after Seurat's death in 1891 and, when he did, he quickly developed his own variant of their technique. He abandoned their use of the dot in favor of separated strokes of pure pigment that he applied in a manner not unlike the tesserae in mosaics. Out of these rectangular brushstrokes, Cross constructed his compositions with interlocking planes and careful juxtaposition of complementary colors. In a letter to Paul Signac dated 1 September 1895, Cross explained that his ultimate aim was to have "technique cede its place to sensation" (I. Compin, op. cit., p. 42).
By 1891 Cross's chronic rheumatism led him to quit Paris for a permanent residence in Saint-Clair, near his friend Signac's home in Saint-Tropez. He returned periodically to Paris to exhibit at the Société des Artistes Indépendants; it is likely that the present picture was painted on one of his visits to the city around 1899. The majority of his oeuvre portray pastoral and seascape subjects that were inspired by the topography of the Cote d'Azur. While unique in the artist's oeuvre, Quai de Passy is typical of the Neo-Impressionist's interest in modern urban life as an important subject in their painting. Situated at a point where the river Seine and its major tributaries converged, Paris was an ideal location for the transportation of goods. By the late-19th century its embankments served as the central shipping point for cotton, grain, livestock and industrial goods. Quai de Passy depicts the busy waterfront of the Seine along an industrial stretch of the embankment in the 16th arrondissement. Formerly a small hamlet known for its rust-colored waters, Passy had been incorporated into the larger city of Paris by 1859. The district was home to the novelist Honoré Balzac and Berthe Morisot, Edouard Manet and Claude Debussy chose to be buried in its cemetery. As evident in the present painting, Cross excelled in conveying the effects of the vibration of color and the rhythm of form. While his scenes of the South of France are rendered in a palette of bold oranges and yellows, the more somber mauve and blue tonality of the present painting capture the light and mood of this industrial section of Paris.