John Russell: Australia’s French Impressionist

August 10, 2018
John Russell, 'The Terraces of Monte Cassino' (c.1889)

If Australian art history were a jigsaw puzzle John Russell would be the piece that doesn’t quite fit. It’s now commonplace to talk of “Australian Impressionists” but Russell is the only artist who genuinely matches the description. Everybody else, from Streeton and Roberts to McCubbin and Fox, pursued a version of Impressionism that owed a debt to the naturalism of Jules Bastien-Lepage, the aestheticism of Whistler, or old-fashioned Victorian narrative painting.

This is why art historians long preferred the term “Heidelberg School”, which allowed a measure of ambiguity. The confusion was apparent on the cover of the catalogue of the landmark 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition of 1889, in a quotation from the French academician, Jean-Léon Gérôme. In reality, Gérôme was among the most vehement enemies of Impressionism.

Russell could have set them straight on this, just as he once informed Roberts in a letter that Impressionism was not simply as matter of making “hasty sketches” en plein air. “Monet for instance will put 10 or 12 sittings on a canvas,” he warned.

A turning point in our appreciation of Russell came in 2016, with a small survey titled Australia’s Impressionists, at the National Gallery in London. Curator, Chris Riopelle, decided to revamp the canon by substituting Russell for sentimental favourite, Fred McCubbin. This is not something local art historians have dared to do, as McCubbin’s works such as Down on his Luck (1889), are Aussie icons found as reproductions on the walls of a thousand pubs and hotel rooms.

John Russell, ‘Self-Portrait’ (1886-87)

Looked at through more objective eyes McCubbin is basically a Victorian storyteller who falls under the spell of J.M.W.Turner in his later work. To include Russell alongside Roberts, Streeton and Conder is to liberate Australian Impressionism from the Heidelberg district and create a direct connection with the original movement.

John Russell: Australia’s French Impressionist at the Art Gallery of NSW, sets out to build on the innovation of the London show, making the case for a lasting re-evaluation. This is in line with an increasingly globalised approach to the Impressionist movement, which originated in France but took on many regional variations.

Russell has been championed before, in museum surveys of 1978 and 2001, but this is the definitive show. Curator, Wayne Tunnicliffe, and his team, have exhaustively researched the artist’s life and brought together the largest collection of his work ever assembled. It’s only the second show the AGNSW has generated over the past six years that features original research, borrowings from many different sources, and a catalogue.

John Russell, ‘A clearing in the forest’ (1891)

If this retrospective doesn’t ensure Russell’s elevation to the highest strata of Australian art, nothing will – unless it’s the feature film Kerry Armstrong and Bernie O’Halloran are hoping to make about the artist’s life. Where art history fears to tread, cinema knows no bounds.

With every previous attempt to raise up Russell’s reputation the artist himself has been the biggest obstacle. Born into a wealthy family in Sydney, Russell never had to earn a living from his painting. Allegedly unwilling to compete with his impoverished peers, he declined to exhibit his work. It was long believed he didn’t participate in the usual French exhibitions, but Ann Galbally has established that he did show the odd picture – even at the 1905 Salon d’automne, in which Matisse and his colleagues gained the nickname “Les Fauves” (wild beasts), because of their bold approach to colour.

Russell was no Fauve but the intensity of his colour, his understanding of Impressionist theory, and his first-hand acquaintance with artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Rodin, Monet and Matisse – to name only the biggest stars – sets him apart from every other Australian artist of the period.

John Russell. ‘Vincent Van Gogh’ (1886)

He spent more than 30 years in France, establishing himself as the unofficial monarch of Belle Ile, a small island off the coast of Brittany, known for its wild and windy weather. On the island, Russell encountered Monet and discussed Impressionist techniques. Later he met a young Matisse and encouraged him to break with tradition and paint with pure colour. He almost succeeded in drowning Rodin during a hair-raising boat trip. This show features works by all three artists, along with Russell’s portrait of his friend, Vincent Van Gogh, borrowed from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

It’s Russell’s own work that has always divided opinions, with admirers and detractors being equally vehement. This exhibition is intended to show him at his best but he still comes across as a patchy proposition. The stand-out works are probably the landscapes he painted in Antibes, in 1890-91, now in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and the Queensland Art Gallery. His portraits of Dr. Will Maloney, Dodge MacKnight and Van Gogh, are also strong, original pieces.

John Russell, ‘Rough sea, Morestil’ (c.1900)

The real test comes with Russell’s paintings of Belle Ile’s surging, storm-tossed seas. There’s a lot of energy in these works, but it would be unfair to compare them to the seascapes of Turner, Courbet or Monet. Although Russell was a commanding personality, as a painter he remained a life-long student. On feels he is always pitting himself against the models in his head, considering technique and theory, and striving to push forward.

One sees this in his attitude towards Rodin, whom he would address as “master”. Russell had a great capacity for admiration and for friendship. When it came to his own work he was willing to take risks, but also highly self-critical.

John Russell, ‘The Needles, winter sun, Belle-Ile’ (1903)

Our view of Russell’s oeuvre is complicated by the fact that, stricken by grief after the death of his wife, Marianna, he made a bonfire of his own work before leaving Belle Ile in 1909. I was hoping the catalogue for this show would provide some idea of what was on that bonfire, but it says nothing at all. One theory is that Russell simply destroyed paintings of his wife, but for all we know he may have consigned a whole tranche of masterpieces to the flames.

The catalogue is equally silent about when Russell began being referred to as “John Peter Russell”. Was it during his lifetime, or only in the 1970s? for this exhibition the middle name has been dropped with no attempt at explanation.

These little mysteries remain, but don’t detract from the exhibition, which ends with an entire wall of Russell’s watercolours. As with so much of his work the quality is uneven, but there is no questioning his lifelong commitment or willingness to experiment. Russell may not have been the finest Australian painter of his era but in his life and art no-one was more adventurous. He may have lacked finesse but there’s no end of bravura.

John Russell: Australia’s French Impressionist
Art Gallery of NSW, 21 July – 11 November, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 11 August, 2018