The Australian painter John Peter Russell, known as the 'Lost Impressionist' was a Sydney born artist whose independent means enabled him to travel and paint throughout his life. He trained in the family business but the closure of the family's engineering works and the death of his father gave him the freedom to pursue his love of art. Russell studied intermittently for three years at the Slade School in London from 1881. This was followed by three years of training at Fernand Cormon's atelier in Paris, where his fellow students included Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Russell first visited Belle-Ile-en-Mer, where this work was painted, in 1886. Belle-Ile is the largest of the French islands in the Atlantic and is situated off the south coast of Brittany. He was immediately drawn to its remoteness and to the wildness of the landscape. It was also during this visit that Russell made the acquaintance of Claude Monet, who spent several months painting Belle-Ile. In 1888 Russell and his Italian-born bride Marianna, a former model for Rodin, moved into Le Chateau de l'Anglais, which was situated at the south-west of the island. Russell had designed and personally overseen the construction of the house, which was to be the family's home for the next twenty years.
During this time, Russell employed a former fisherman, Hippolyte Guillaumin (known variously as Poly, Polite and Le Pere Poly) as a gardener and handy-man. Russell also organised for Poly to act as a porter for Monet during his painting expeditions in 1886. Portrait de Poly by Monet is now in the collection of the Musee Marmottan-Monet in Paris. Poly, who was apparently characterised by an amusing glibness of speech and forthrightness, became a favourite with Monet and was to entertain future generations of artists and visitors to Belle-Ile with tales of the time that he spent with the famous artist.
The extant portraits of Poly by both Russell and Monet belong to a genre that had been fashionable amongst French artists since the mid-nineteenth century. Courbet's The Stone Breakers (circa 1849 -50) and Millet's The Gleaners 1857 were both highly influential works that depicted the agricultural working-class in a realistic manner, while simultaneously elevating rural labour as an appropriate subject for high art. Peasants were seen as having a spiritual affinity with the land; a romantic ideal that was popular with the urban collectors of Impressionist art. Belle-Ile seems to have provided the stimulus for Russell to produce works in this genre, as variations on the theme include Washerwomen at the stream, Belle-Ile, circa 1888 - 1890, Fisherman in Blue and Pecheurs avec filet.
Russell's biographer Ann Galbally commented perceptively that: "Like Monet, Russell painted Poly in close-up portraits with fishing baskets, net and mattock: he also painted him set in the landscape, the cliffs and coves of Port Goulphar. In short, for Russell, Poly became the prototype of the fisherman, the symbol of all fishermen and their intimate relationship with their surroundings." (A Galbally, op.cit, p.58)
However, unlike Monet's portrait of Poly in the Musee Marmottan-Monet, which shows the fisherman seated and set against an undefined backdrop of tinted white, Russell did not separate Poly from the island landscape of which he was so much a part. Against the dramatic backdrop of Belle-Ile's rocky coastline, Poly's presence has the effect of adding a human scale and softens the landscape slightly by revealing it as habitable.
A smaller version of this composition titled Mon Ami Polite is in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Fascinatingly, Mon Ami Polite is itself painted over an earlier version, which has been revealed by X-ray. This initial version bears a closer similarity to Belle-Ile, Le Pere Polyte (Polyte Pecheur) in terms of composition and the rock formations visible in the background.