October 30, 2018
JOHN Russell was one of the most influential impressionist painters in 19th-century France. He was friends with Rodin, painted with Monet, mentored Matisse and studied with Toulouse Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh, who also became a close friend. He fell madly in love with an Italian beauty and lived with her for 20 years on Belle-Ile, a remote island off the coast of France, where he developed his masterful and radical painting skills.
Yet few are familiar with Russell’s story, let alone the fact that he was born in Darlinghurst, grew up in a house that once stood near the site of the Kings Cross Coke sign on William St, and lived for the last part of his life in Watsons Bay, where his studio still stands, marked by a plaque at 22 Pacific St.
This has been a big year for the unheralded artist. Nearly 140 years since he left Sydney in 1880 to study art in London, he is the subject of a major retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW, John Russell: Australia’s French Impressionist, and a documentary premiering on ABC on October 30, Australia’s Lost Impressionist: John Russell.
Director Catherine Hunter has made many acclaimed films about creative Australians, including Jeffrey Smart, Sidney Nolan and Margaret Olley. Her most recent documentary about architect Glenn Murcutt opened the New York Architecture and Design festival last year.
She first became aware of Russell at another AGNSW exhibition in 2001, showing his work alongside Monet and Matisse. When she heard the gallery was planning a major retrospective, she decided the time was right for a documentary.
Last year she travelled to Belle-Ile with the exhibition’s curator Wayne Tunnicliffe, as well as artists Luke Sciberras and Euan Mcleod, to see where Russell escaped Paris to build a house, raise a family with his beloved Marianna Mattioco, and paint the wildly beautiful landscape.
Hunter says visiting the island was crucial for the documentary.
“Looking at Russell’s paintings, the landscape has barely changed in the last 100 years. For a filmmaker it is always great when you can match up the locations with the paintings and it is so easy on Belle-Île.”
They found the house Russell first lived in, as well as the places Matisse and Monet stayed when they visited.
“That landscape was so important and it was where he did some of this best work.
He loved the wild storms most of all and when you see the footage, you understand why.”
Another invaluable resource was Russell’s correspondence, including with van Gogh, whose self-portrait hangs in the retrospective next to the portrait Russell painted of his friend in 1886. There were also 60 letters exchanged with French sculptor Rodin, who Russell commissioned to make a bronze of Marianna when they eventually married in 1888, two years after they met.
Legend has it that when she died of cancer in 1908 at 42, her grief-stricken husband burnt most of his paintings, but Tunnicliffe believes this is an exaggeration. It was also believed Russell seldom exhibited his paintings, but research has shown this was not the case. It is true Russell did not need to sell his paintings, as he left Australia independently wealthy after the death of his father.
He grew up in a house at 44 Upper William St in Darlinghurst. The family fortune came from a manufacturing engineering firm, which made iron for the Pyrmont Bridge and GPO, as well as much of the lacework seen through Paddington.
Russell studied to be an engineer, but his father’s death and the closure of the business granted him freedom. He spent 40 years away in England, France and travelling Europe before finally returning to Sydney in 1922, where he settled in Watsons Bay with his second wife. His cousin, artist Thea Proctor, tried to convince him to engage with the local art world, but he refused, preferring to remain anonymous. When his work Regatta, Rose Baywent up for auction, it didn’t sell; it now belongs to a private collector in Melbourne.
Hunter says one of the reasons his story has taken so long to come to light is many of his paintings have not been seen since his daughter gave them to the French state in 1948. This has gradually changed, with works being acquired by public museums and galleries.
Russell never completely lost his connection to Australia — he wrote regularly to another lifelong friend, Tom Roberts, who was blazing his own trail as an impressionist here.
Russell’s self-portrait from 1883 before he left Sydney, also in the exhibition, wearing a jaunty red fez, luxuriant moustache and a straight gaze, gives a glimpse into his character, as do the emotive letters in his dashing handwriting. Hugo Weaving provides Russell’s voice in the documentary.
“He could have become establishment — his uncle was knighted and lived in great style in London,” says Tunnicliffe. “He chose to live on the edge of the most avant-garde art practices and live on an island with his beautiful mistress who he then married, so he chose to live a very unconventional life.”
Australia’s Lost Impressionist: John Russell is screening on ABC iview until November 30; John Russell: Australia’s French Impressionist is at AGNSW until November 11, artgallery.nsw.gov.au