John Peter Russell: Rising From Obscurity

Australian painter John Peter Russell was a close friend of Vincent Van Gogh, and our testament to this is a perceptive portrait of the Dutch master in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. So why do so few Australians know of Russell?

Anyone walking into the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam today is greeted on the ground floor by a series of portraits of the iconic artist. The very first one, an absolute ripper of a portrait, is by the Australian expatriate artist, John Peter Russell. A thoughtful, perceptive rendering of the man who wanted to be a great artist, worked tirelessly to be, but never really believed that he was, Russell captures the essence of the painter he wanted to be, and for that reason it was a treasured possession to Vincent. When Van Gogh sat for this portrait in 1886 he was a complete unknown with no particular prospects and few friends. Russell had the insight and deftness with his brush to produce a description of the man that now resonates with viewers who know his entire life story, laced with all of its tragedy. He recognised the conflicted soul within and laid it bare on the canvas.

The two remained close and corresponded right up until Van Gogh’s death in 1890. Though strikingly different personalities, perhaps they shared the same self-doubt in terms of artistic acumen. Russell was notoriously shy about exhibiting his work and his comfortable financial position exempted him from having to expose himself in this way. This was one of the reasons the name John Peter Russell has not come down to us as part of the history of Australian art. In truth, he belongs not to the history of Australian art so much as to the history of Western art as a whole. He encouraged and patronised artists such as Van Gogh, Lautrec and Bates; Australians Roberts and Longstaff, and the American, Dodge Macknight amongst others. He became a great friend of Auguste Rodin. He discussed colour theory and practice with Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley and passed on what he learned.

Russell is widely recognised as having had a significant influence on the young Matisse. When they first met in 1896 Matisse was just 25 and still working in delicate, subdued tones with an earthy palette in the manner of his training under Bouguereau. Matisse was invited to Russell’s home on Belle-Île, and revisited in 1897, and during these visits Russell instructed him in the manipulation of light and colour on the canvas. Russell introduced him to the discoveries of Monet, gifted him with two drawings by Van Gogh, encouraged him to experiment with the brushstroke and exposed him to Japanese prints and the theories of Impressionism. In short, he brought him into the world of the moderns and the effect was immediate and explosive. Matisse responded to and embraced colour as a vehicle of creative expression. The rest, as they say, is history.

In spite of all of this, Russell is still not as well understood in Australia as he deserves to be. After spending most of his productive working life in Europe, Russell eventually returned to Australia in 1920 where he lived quietly dissociated from the art world until his death in 1930. You are not likely to find Russell in any Australian secondary school or even on any university survey course in Australian art. One has to be introduced to him. Relatively few scholars have examined his work. Ann Galbally has made the greatest contribution, having written several titles, and catalogue essays and the most thorough biography – A Remarkable Friendship: Vincent Van Gogh and John Peter Russell (MUP 2008).

Following on from their 2001 exhibition, Belle-Île. Monet, Russell & Matisse in Brittany, the Art Gallery of New South Wales are planning a new, much more significant retrospective in 2018. With new works having surfaced over recent years, Wayne Tunnicliffe, the Head Curator of Australian Art at AGNSW, is looking forward to presenting an array of local and internationally sourced works, many of which have never been on public display before. This enables opportunities for original directions in research, with new works providing refreshed insights into the depth and breadth of Russell’s surprisingly diverse oeuvre.

Mr Tunnicliffe says, “There is renewed interest globally in international Impressionists, the English, American and Australian artists who painted alongside the French, so it is a perfect time to be reviewing and building on what we know already about Russell.”

Lara Nicholls, Assistant Curator of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia, says, “Painting is never out of fashion for very long and John Russell was one of Australia’s great painters, some would argue our only true Impressionist in the French manner … The question is often put as to whether he is as good as Monet and the fact that it is even asked attests to his place in art history and his relevance today.”

When considering Russell’s oeuvre as a whole, one is overwhelmingly struck by his courage with colour: colour as a tool to construct the image, colour as a subject in itself, and colour to create mood. Monet was known for his series works, such as the haystacks and La Cathédrale de Rouen, where he revisited exactly the same place many times in different lights to show the changing faces and moods of a single place, primarily employing colour.

With its constantly changing form, light and contour, the ocean as a subject is the perfect vehicle for a virtuoso colourist such as Monet, and indeed Russell, to experiment with the potential of pure colour as an end in and of itself. Both painters recognised the island of Belle-Île as the ideal painting spot. For Russell it became both his home and his obsession. Its wildness and remoteness suited Russell’s adventurous temperament, while the constantly changing moods of the sea provided inexhaustible subject matter.

Russell’s method mimicked the wild weather and violence of the waves, becoming progressively looser and bolder. He “slapped” and “whacked” the paint on, building up layers of impasto as evidenced in ‘Stormy Sky and Sea: Belle Ile, off Brittany’, c.1890. Landforms are dispensed with here and the ocean’s movement is paramount, the turmoil of the waves and the feeling that the atmosphere invokes within the artist are key. In this he could be said to have been decades ahead of the abstract expressionists. Russell struggled with the physicality of the medium and how to achieve the colour quality he desired. He found problems with the new, prepared paints which led to a preference for his own traditional methods of blending paints using pure pigments. He learned to capture the brightest hues without mixing, avoiding the associated darkening effects, which he feared.

Russell puzzled over how to manage the long drying process in the damp climate of Belle-Île. He preferred an emotively expressive rendering and developed experimental brush techniques to aid the dual goals of colour purity and a lively, painterly surface. Russell’s ability as a colourist exceeded his talent for composition and that could be because the expression was prioritised over the execution. Russell cared more about how his work communicated feeling than how it described a scene. He didn’t study the ocean to create the picturesque. Russell points out that “I am a painter of nature, of nature’s moods, of sunlight and the changing temper of the sea.”

Within the paintings left to us we can see evidence that Russell’s own moods and story are played out on the surfaces of his oceans, and canvases. ‘Bay of Nice’ (1891) with its cluster of little boats, golden sands, and gentle, green-flecked tides depicts the calm, unhurried, leisurely feeling of a painter en vacances. During the Belle-Île years Russell’s colour experimentation led him to a high-keyed but minimal palette. In paintings of his wife and children, the sea resonates with saturated cobalt and ultramarine, the gardens with cadmium yellow, Chinese vermillion, viridian and Veronese green. He eschews browns and black. Can there be a greater depiction of colour and warmth than ‘Boys on the Beach, Belle Ile’ (c. 1904-06)? There is great joy in this picture, its surface truly sparkles with familial contentment, combined with a celebration of youth, vitality and nature.

Equally dedicated to painting in watercolour, Russell found the medium suited his purpose of painting directly from the motif, en plein air. His watercolour palette did not differ greatly from his oils, favouring bright, pure hues. His method was to lay down a brief outline sketch and then apply the paint rapidly.

As always, form concerned him less than the combination of colour that he could achieve and in this medium, speed wins out over precision. ‘Chalk cliffs at Goulphar Bay’ (1907) is a charming example of a scene briefly captured in situ. Vibrant orange sailboats bobbing on waves of blue, green and purple, amidst rolling cliffs daubed in rainbow shades.

Sadness too is evident in one highly poignant work by Russell executed shortly after the death of his cherished wife. Marianna had died in Paris from cancer on 30 March, 1908, aged 42. Russell and his surviving six children returned to Belle-Île to bury her amidst the deepest of grief. Just under six weeks after this loss Russell painted an image of Belle-Île unlike all others. Inscribed at the lower edge of this sombre watercolour is ‘Fog May 9, 1908’. In gentle tones of aqua, lilac and pink, it depicts the oppressive fog settled over the bay and the sorrow within his own being. Without the need for darkness Russell perfectly expresses his melancholy. In the same period, he wrote to Rodin expressing his torment – “Je suis passe’ par l’enfer”. Unable to stay in the family home without Marianna, Russell sold up and left the island, apparently destroying around 400 of his paintings at the same time. He must have been deciding on this sad course as he painted this watercolour.

There are several good reasons that Russell has remained largely unknown in Australia: during the greater part, and most important years of his career, he was absent from Australia and thus he was never involved in the nationalistic fervour of some of his Australian compatriots. He exhibited rarely, in step with his European contemporaries of the progressive school, and there survive no grand-scale, monumental paintings to consume the wall of a major institution and demand the attention of the public.

More than anything though, it could be said that he was an artist’s artist. His correspondence tells us that he was most concerned with understanding the essence and reality of the process, the struggle with the medium and with his goal of expressing feeling and sensation on the canvas. He was not painting to satisfy dealers, patrons or a public audience, only himself and his respected peers, so he enjoyed a freedom of personal and artistic expression most artists would envy.

Images courtesy The Nock Art Foundation, Marianne Margin, Sotheby’s Australia