Following the death of his father and the closure of the family-run engineering business, John Peter Russell left Sydney for London to pursue a new career. With a considerable inheritance, he was able to concentrate on his artistic interests and in 1881 he enrolled at the Slade School of Art. Russell later furthered his studies at Cormon's atelier in Paris training alongside Emile Bernard, Toulouse Lautrec, and Vincent van Gogh.
Van Gogh, who arrived at the atelier in 1886 would become a close friend of Russell’s, and the two artists met up and corresponded until van Gogh’s death in 1890. Whilst at the atelier, Russell sketched and subsequently painted his friend, the oil portrait now hanging in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Russell loved the sea and was eager to escape the distractions of Paris life. In 1886, he discovered Belle-Ile, a small island off the south coast of Brittany. In 1888, following his marriage to Marianna Mattiocco, a former muse for Auguste Rodin who immortalized her beauty in Minerve sans Casque, Russell and his family made Belle-Ile their permanent home.
It was during his first visit to the island, however, that Russell met Claude Monet, an artist whom he greatly admired and whose influence was decisive.
Russell became the only Australian artist to be directly in touch with Monet and the mainstream French impressionists in the late 19th century
Monet was on a three-month working sojourn to Belle-Ile. 'He came and hovered around me yesterday while I was working and finally asked whether I was Claude Monet (the prince of Impressionists),’ Monet wrote in a letter to Alice Hoschedé in September of 1886. ‘It was a great delight for him. He was nice and we went on a walk together, and this evening I am having dinner with him at his house.’
Monet appears to have tutored the inquisitive 28-year-old in the rudiments of his technique, and inspired by the Impressionist master, Russell became the only Australian artist to be directly in touch with Monet and the mainstream French impressionists in the late 19th century.
John Peter Russell (1858-1930), Coucher de Soleil sur Morestil. Inscribed ‘100/80 coucher Soleil sur MORESTIL / 38’ on the stretcher oil on hessian. 31 ¾ x 39 1/2 in. (80.6 x 100.3 cm.) Estimate: £350,000-450,000. This work is offered in the Australian Art auction on 24 September at Christie’s London
Belle-Ile, with its rustic, rugged and temperamental backdrop, inspired Russell to rethink the ideas that had been ingrained in him during his studies. He began instead to concentrate on the primary importance of light and colour, capturing the motif of nature in its purest and brightest hues.
‘He was intrigued by the changing qualities of its marine light, the eternal motion of the sea and the spectacular storms that battered the island, painting some of his most improvisatory, summary and expressive works in response to the unleashed forces of its tempests,’ writes Ursula Prunster in Belle-Île Monet, Russell & Matisse in Brittany.
In 1897 and 1898 Henri Matisse visited Belle Ile, and Russell is said to have introduced the artist to the work of his friend, Vincent van Gogh. Matisse’s style changed visibly after his time on the island and he is said to have credited Russell with his new understanding of colour theory.
None of these studies are signed and dated and it would seem that Russell was never finally satisfied with them
Russell went on to paint numerous paysages maritimes during the 20 years he lived on the Breton isle. In early 1903, in a letter to his friend Rodin, he spoke of the same spot he returned to again and again: ‘Our surroundings are particularly terrible at the moment because of the fury of the sea,’ wrote Russell. ‘I have taken advantage of this to study, having found after 15 years a sheltered spot quite close to the swell [of the waves]. It’s not without danger, certainly — and the diabolical noise is extraordinary.’
Although many of Russell’s most celebrated works from Bell-Ile were painted from this spot on the clifftops just beyond Port Goulphar, they were, explains Prunster, produced ‘under conditions of varying intensity, whereby the colours of the ocean, rocks and sky mutate from warm to cold, bright to dark, from hot pink and turquoise to leaden purples and grey-greens.’
Details of Coucher de Soleil sur Morestil which show the colours and the varied brushstrokes used by Russell in his clifftop paintings on the Breton isle
Prunster also points out how Russell ‘varied the brushstrokes; some were applied in short, stabbing motions using the hand flexed from the wrist, others straight-armed in long, sweeping arcs, moving from the shoulder in broad swathes.’
‘It is as if Russell were seeking an elusive pictorial formula,’ offers Ann Galbally in her 1977 book, The Art of John Peter Russell. ‘None of these studies are signed and dated and it would seem that Russell was never finally satisfied with them … The view is always taken along the right hand side of the canvas, with the wild foaming sea breaking onto the rocks from the left. …’
Coucher de Soleil sur Morestil, offered in Christie’s upcoming Australian Art sale, is one of the works of the series of canvases painted at Belle-Île. It is a dramatic painting, capturing the fury of the sea and the waves breaking on the rocks through his use of thick impasto and lively brushstrokes and palette knife. The heightened colours Prunster mentions is clearly evident here with the shades of pink in the sky, and the purples, turquoise, greens, golds and blues coming through in the rocks.
In 1908, Russell’s beloved wife Marianna died. They had six children. Russell buried her next to his home and was so overcome with grief that he destroyed 400 of his oils and watercolours. In a letter to his friend, Rodin wrote, ‘Your works will live, I am certain. One day you will be placed on the same level with our friends Monet, Renior, and Van Gogh.’
Russell decided to return to Sydney in 1921. Nine years later, he suffered a heart attack and died. The significant part of his career having been spent overseas, none of Russell’s radical painting reached his contemporaries in Australia, and his work was largely ignored by the Australian art establishment until the 1970s.
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