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John Russell, Australia’s French Impressionist
Published by: Dr Michael Adcock | Aug 10th, 2018
Dr. Michael Adcock Academy Travel Paris Tour Leader Head of History, Melbourne Grammar School
The Art Gallery of New South Wales has just launched another stellar exhibition, offering a survey of the career and work of one Australian artist in all its freshness and richness. It is complemented by works by other artists that illuminate his links with the development of modern art in France.
Introducing John Peter Russell
For many visitors this exhibition will prove to be a revelation. Some people have commented that they had not been aware of John Peter Russell’s work, and were even more surprised to learn of the important interactions that he had had with no lesser masters of French art than Claude Monet (to whom he played host), Vincent van Gogh (with whom he shared painting rambles in the outskirts of Paris), Auguste Rodin (who became his lifelong epistolary friend and confidante) and Henri Matisse (whom he encouraged to take the revolutionary step of lightening his palette).
In addition, Russell conveyed important news about artistic developments in Europe to the likes of Tom Roberts and his peers in Australia.
Clearly, there is quite a story here, and it is particularly poignant because the young man who left Australia for London then Paris in 1883 lacked confidence in his skills and underestimated his own abilities.
Yet this is the same young man who settled on the rocky island of Belle-Île, off the coast of Brittany, built a house on the cliff-tops, and devoted his life to capturing the rugged coastline and the savage Atlantic swells that smashed in great storms against the cliffs. Claude Monet has been quoted as stating that Russell’s Belle-Île paintings were better than his own – a compliment not to be taken lightly.
Russell went at his profession with a rare dedication. We know that the Impressionists were willing to depict stormy weather: Claude Monet insisted on painting on beaches dangerously close to the surf, and both Monet and van Gogh had a go at painting the rain, a most difficult, fleeting subject. Russell gazumped them all, setting himself the task of painting hail while actually in a hailstorm.
We can imagine him, eagerly observing leaden storm clouds, rushing to an exposed cliff-top when everybody else was rushing for shelter, setting up his easel, readying his brush … until a most violent hail storm engulfed him. The large hail stones came close to shredding his canvas and badly bruised his arms and hands, but he held his ground, persevered and achieved his goal.
Hail storm at Belle-Île (1906) – in the room devoted to his watercolours – depicts large white hailstones and traces their trajectories, making the landscape look more like a battle scene with cannon balls whizzing across the sky. One wonders whether this may be the first, perhaps the only, painting succeeding in depicting a hail storm. (Turner boasted that he had lashed himself to the mast of a sailing ship to witness a violent storm at sea, but that is just plain showing off … For my money, Russell’s the man).
Discovering our ‘expatriate’ painters
Why, then, might John Russell be less familiar to some viewers even today? After all, Elizabeth Salter published her foundation biography The Lost Impressionist as early as 1976, followed by the pioneering exhibition organized in Melbourne in 1977 by Professor Ann Galbally; her catalogue, The Art of John Peter Russell, remains a highly scholarly introduction to the artist’s oeuvre.
The answer might be that our nascent interest in Australian art, especially during the 1970s, tended to be focused on a patriotic love of painters who had captured the essential features of our land, and who had provided a very Australian record of the Australian experience. During that decade, we embraced the works of McCubbin, Roberts, Streeton and Conder with renewed passion; art exhibitions, art publications and popular reproductions made their works more familiar and much loved to the general public.
In this context, it would take us a little longer to discover the ‘other’ artists, those expatriates who went to Europe and stayed for some time. We are now rather more aware of the careers of artists such as Ethel Carrick-Fox and Emmanuel Phillips Fox, who illustrate that other side of Australian art, which was engagement with modernist movements abroad.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales has been proactive in this broadening of our perspective, and first offered an important exhibition curated by Ann Galbally, Belle Île. Monet, Russell and Matisse in Brittany in 2001. This was no mere solo retrospective of Russell’s work: it boldly placed his art in the context of Matisse and Monet, whose works were also shown in that exhibition. This theme was taken up, more broadly, by Elena Taylor, in her exhibition Australian Impressionists in France (National Gallery of Victoria, 2013), which offered a comprehensive survey of our expatriate artists. This current exhibition in 2018 puts the Art Gallery of New South Wales fairly and squarely at the cutting edge of understanding Australian art in an international context.
Rambles with Tom Roberts in Spain
Russell left Sydney and arrived in London in May 1883. Although his destination was Paris, he first allowed himself to join Tom Roberts, William Moloney and his own brother Percy Russell on a sketching tour of Spain. Moloney confirmed that Russell quickly emerged as the natural leader of the group, exercising a genial authority and guidance.
Russell would have been present for the visit to the Alhambra in Spain, when Roberts executed the plein-air paintings (included in the exhibition), one of which Russell bought from his new friend.
The friendships proved durable, and Russell entered into an enduring epistolary relationship with Roberts, sending him numerous letters about the development of his aesthetics and practice. In this respect, he continued to be an important conduit of information about developments in Europe to his colleague in Australia.
The revelation of Impressionism
Russell arrived in Paris when the great Impressionist exhibitions were drawing to a close, and when the Neo-Impressionism (or Pointillism) of Seurat and Signac was gaining ground.
The exhibition includes a number of Impressionist works, including a selection of Russell’s masterly portraits. We may take these painter-portraits for granted, but in the 1870s and 1880s the friendly, informal, collegial portrait was a relatively new genre practiced by the Impressionists as an expression of both bonhomie and solidarity. Russell picked up and perfected this practice.
His Portrait of Dr. Will Maloney (1887, National Gallery of Victoria) is well-known, but looking more closely at Russell’s treatment of the sitter’s pink shirt reveals how radical it was. It is so vigorously brushed that the pigment takes on a life of its own, independent of its descriptive function. His Portrait of Dodge MacKnight (1887-1888, Private Collection), rarely seen before, is even more breathtakingly assured in its execution.
The most novel, innovative and remarkable portrait in the exhibition, however, is Madame Sisley on the Banks of the Loing at Moret, (1887), a real treasure belonging to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Russell visited the Sisleys at their home in Moret, and devised a most unusual composition depicting Sisley’s wife seen from behind, and against a riverine landscape that has been cunningly disarticulated, with a magnificent study of chalky cliff in the background.
The composition is willfully disconcerting, and we now know why: Russell would have been shown his colleagues’ collections of Japanese woodblock prints, and encouraged to buy his own, and now he is here experimenting with a deliberately off-centre composition.
Russell and japonisme
The story of japonisme is well-known in the history of Impressionism. It began with a fad: wealthy ladies in Paris became enamoured of ‘exotic’ styles – Chinese, Japanese, Turkish – and soon found themselves designing whole rooms in the Japanese style, even dressing themselves up in the Japanese costume (see Monet’s gorgeous Portrait of Camille, not in the exhibition).
All this might have remained merely a fad, had it not been for chance. French importers of Japanese ceramics placed orders, and the Japanese factories wrapped their ceramics – in the days before bubble wrap – in scrunched copies of Japanese woodblock prints. Parisian artists could not afford the ceramics, but they were fascinated by the woodblock prints, which they flattened out and studied with amazement. The art dealers were disappointed when the painters left the ceramic vases and took the wrapping paper…
The radical compositional devices of Japanese art inspired painters as diverse as Manet, Degas and Monet, who emulated their unusual points of view and the radical cropping of objects. Freshly arrived in Paris, Russell could not have failed to notice the vogue, and during 1886-1887 tried his hand at a number of studies of blossom trees, such as Almond Trees in Bloom (c. 1887, Private Collection.)
The exhibition brings together a number of these paintings in one section, including some rarely-seen works from private collections. Visitors might never have seen, for example, the magisterial Mme. Russell with almond trees (c. 1887, Private Collection).
A trusted friend of Auguste Rodin
One very exciting part of the exhibition is a special platform devoted to a display of Rodin’s sculptures of Marianna, Russell’s beautiful Italian wife. Russell aspired to have a portrait of Marianna done by Rodin to commemorate their impending marriage, but heard, to his dismay, that the master was not doing any private commissions – no matter how lucrative – because he was working on his great official commissions, notably The Gates of Hell.
Undeterred, Russell asked a fellow artist for a letter of introduction, and a grudging Rodin agreed to see them. Quite unexpectedly, he agreed to do the portrait. This might have been because he had truly found in Russell a kindred spirit, but there may have been another reason: the cunning old fox took one look at Marianna, appreciated the classical beauty of her face, and realised that she would be an ideal (unpaid) model for any future sculpture with a classical theme.
This story has vital links with our own Australian collections: the Queensland Art Gallery, amazingly, possesses the original wax model by Rodin of Marianna’s head (not included in this exhibition), while the National Gallery of Victoria has his marble version of Minerva without helmet, a classical subject clearly modeled on Marianna (included in the exhibition). It is therefore most moving to see the actual portrait bust, cast in silver, that Russell finally commissioned and received.
The attraction of Belle-Île
To truly appreciate the work of both Monet and Russell, we need to understand that Belle-Île was quite the opposite of what its name suggests. It is not so much beautiful as wild; so bleak, elemental and wild in fact that Henri Matisse could not initially cope with it, nor could August Rodin, and they went back gratefully to the sheltered world of Paris.
Many painters had instead gone to mainland Normandy seeking tame beach scenes and charming ‘peasant’ or ‘fisherfolk’ scenes, while Gauguin had gone to Brittany seeking his dream of a ‘primitive’ lifestyle, before seeking more ‘primitive’ cultures in the corrupted environment of colonial Tahiti.
Belle-Île was a step too far, the elements just too elemental, the charming tourist scenes lacking. This was an uncompromisingly tough coastline, whipped and pulverized by Atlantic gales. It would take artists of unusual vision to revel in such bleakness.
Monet and Belle-Île
It may at first seem surprising that Monet should have elected to visit this island. On reflection, however, it is not so very astonishing. Monet loved his quiet scenes beside the water lily ponds at Giverny and the mist-laden mornings on the Seine, but there was part of him that compelled him towards the raw, the wild and the savage.
We are most familiar with his paintings of the sun-drenched fields around Giverny – how many postcards, calendars, even tea-towels! – but look up his less well-known series done in the Creuse Valley in France. Or the series he made in the depths of winter in Norway (not shown in this exhibition). There is to be seen here a more stern, stoic Monet, testing himself out against harsh and uncompromising landscapes.
In this context it is not surprising that Monet reveled in Belle-Île; it is a matter of great joy that the Art Gallery of New South Wales should possess a splendid painting of Port Goulphar, Belle-Île, which is arguably of more interest than any number of Giverny waterlily paintings, attractive those these may be. Our national collections do indeed harbor some unsung masterpieces.
In this section of the exhibition you’ll also find a compelling set of raw, powerful paintings of the great needles of rock visible off the coast of Belle-Île. Monet had taken one look at them and had started painting, inspired by Japanese woodblock prints of jagged rocks seen from above. Russell followed suit, inspired equally by the example of Monet and of the Japanese art. There is nothing pretty or picturesque here, merely a sense of monumental size and solidity of the rocks set against Atlantic tempests.
Russell also took his cue from Monet in following his example and seeking out a quite different maritime environment at Antibes in France. Monet and other Impressionists, such as Renoir, were enchanted by the coastline and by the brilliant Mediterranean light; Monet’s ‘series’ paintings done at Antibes are almost lambent in their hit luminosity.
By the time Russell made his way to Antibes, he was in full command of his powers. One section of the exhibition brings together a number of Russell’s Antibes paintings, and these works assume the same symphonic grandeur and painterly assurance as in Monet’s works.
In The Bay of Nice (1891, National Gallery of Australia), Russell uses a monumental canvas, and creates a ‘step’ into the scene of a foreground with three bushes in sunlight, their foliage rendered in explosive centrifugal brushstrokes. Here, he uses a high-keyed palette, with thick encrustations of pigment in yellow, orange, pink and touches of red. The sea is beautifully variegated: close to the shore, it is blue-green, with the dominant strokes of green moderated by superimpositions of blue; further out, the sea deepens to a pure blue. Above, the sky is a curious, almost acidic green tone. Typically, the further shore is rendered in mauve-to-purple shadows, backed by the crenellated ridges of the Maritime Alps, white with snow.
Some of these works are from public collections, especially Canberra and Queensland, and are familiar, but seen en masse together, supplemented by completely fresh works out of private collections, they assume enormous cogency and beauty.
Another bonus from this exhibition is being able to view a number of works from French collections: the Orsay Museum, Paris, owns a major clutch of Russell’s works, and these are lent to the Museum of Morlaix as an artistic ‘deposit’. We have every reason to feel grateful that this ‘deposit’ has been sent on to us in Sydney, where we may more conveniently view them!
Wild seas, c. 1900
Later in his career, about 1900, Russell embarked upon an ambitious and remarkable series of paintings that were clearly intended to capture a true sense of the elemental force of the great waves that pounded the coast of the island. Six of these are brought together in Sydney, displayed upon a long curving wall, where their unison has a powerful effect, magnified by the fact that the Gallery has arranged for Debussy’s La Mer to be played over the speakers in this room.
Once again, many of these wonderful works, such as Rough Sea, Morestil (c. 1900), have come out of private collections, and so they provide completely fresh insights into Russell’s campaign of work. In this painting, he now uses long, curving, heavily stylized lines of light blue and white paint, which mimic the vast swell and surge of a wave as it crashes onto the coast in a ruin of foam.
Coda: Later work, c. 1907
We might leave him and Marianna with the glorious image of Madame Russell among flowers in the Garden of Port Goulphar, Belle-Île (1907, Orsay Museum, Paris).
This image of his beloved wife in the garden she created is a riot of colour: the figure is relegated to the back of the garden, allowing the mass of flowers to explode into an independent tapestry of paint made up of large splotches of pure colour. We know from daughter Jeanne’s memoirs that there were hollyhocks, carnations and Spanish Broom. Not a single plant is identifiable, yet the essence of the garden is captured.
Ann Galbally, Belle Île. Monet, Russell and Matisse in Brittany (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2001).
Ann Galbally, The Art of John Peter Russell (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1977).
Ann Galbally, A Remarkable Friendship: Vincent van Gogh and John Peter Russell (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2008).
Elizabeth Salter, The Lost Impressionist (Melbourne: Angus and Robertson, 1976).
Elena Taylor, Australian Impressionists in France (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2013).
Wayne Tunnicliffe, John Russell. Australia’s French Impressionist (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2018).
Dr Michael Adcock
Dr Michael Adcock is social and cultural historian who specialises in the field of modern France. He has published works on the French Revolution with Cambridge University Press. Michael has over ten years’ experience in leading residential study tours in Paris and France. He has a strong interest in the interpretation of the arts in the context of the political and social moment in which they were created. Michael holds a Bachelor of Arts (Combined First-Class Honours in French and History), a Master of Arts (French History) and a Doctor of Philosophy (French History), all from the University of Melbourne. Michael led his first Academy Travel tour to Paris in 2006 and speaks fluent French.