John Russell: Paintings from Belle-Île
John Russell, Australia/France 1858–1930 | La Pointe de Morestil par mer calme (Calm Sea at Morestil Point) 1901 | Oil on canvas | Gift of Lady Trout 1987 | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery
John Russell, Australia/France 1858-1930 | Roc Toul (Roche Guibel) (Toul Rock (Guibel Rock)) 1904-5 | Oil on canvas | Gift of Lady Trout 1979 | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery
Currently on display | Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Galleries | Queensland Art Gallery (QAG)
John Russell spent the greater part of his artistic life as an expatriate in Europe. During his time there, he associated with some of the great modern artists, including Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin and Auguste Rodin, as well as Claude Monet, who was perhaps the greatest influence on his work.
Russell was born in Sydney, in 1858, to a family with a successful engineering firm. Though a qualified engineer, Russell’s financial independence, following the death of his father, allowed him to travel to London, in 1881, to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. In 1883, he travelled throughout Spain with his friend Tom Roberts. He made his home in Paris the following year, and studied at the Atelier Cormon.
In 1888, Russell married the Italian model Marianna Mattiocco, who was once described by Rodin as ‘the most beautiful woman in Paris’. The portrait bust of Marianna – which Russell commissioned from Rodin in the year of the couple’s marriage – is displayed in the European galleries nearby. After his marriage, Russell established a home at Goulphar on Belle-Île, an island off the coast of Brittany, which he had first visited in 1886. Belle-Île was a favourite subject for Monet and its principal attraction for artists was la côte sauvage, literally, ‘the wild coast’. Here, the land ends abruptly and drops to meet a tumultuous sea which, over millennia, has shaped rock formations and grottoes.
Rodin’s last letter to John Russell reveals his admiration for his friend’s painting: ‘Your works will live, I am certain. One day you will be placed on the same level with our friends Monet, Renoir, and Van Gogh’.
John Russell La Pointe de Morestil par mer calme (Calm Sea at Morestil Point) 1901
La Pointe de Morestil par mer calme is one of many seascapes that John Russell painted on the storm-tossed island of Belle-Île off the coast of north-western France. Here, he painted in pure colours, under different weather conditions and at different times of the day.
Russell spent the summer of 1886 sailing and sketching on Belle-Île. He chanced upon a new arrival painting on the windy cliff and, recognising his style, Russell asked him: ‘Ne seriez vous Claude Monet, le prince des impressionists?’ ('Aren’t you Claude Monet, prince of the impressionists?’). Flattered and amused, Monet allowed the young artist, who he referred to as American, to paint with him, and thus had a decisive influence on the development of Russell’s work.
Within two years Russell had changed his situation in life. Leaving Paris behind, he became the first non-native to settle on the island. Building a large manor house the islanders called Le Chateau de l’Anglais, he welcomed a stream of visitors including Auguste Rodin, the Australian painter John Longstaff, and the young Henri Matisse, who became Russell’s friend and ‘pupil’ over the two summers of 1896–97.
Inspired by Monet’s example, Russell declared to a fellow Australian artist that he now felt himself part of ‘a mighty revolution in art’ because ‘impressionism as understood here consists not of hasty sketches but in finished work in which the purity of colour and intention is kept’.
John Russell Roc Toul (Roche Guibel) (Toul Rock (Guibel Rock)) 1904-5
Belle Île is a small island off the coast of Brittany, in France. During the nineteenth century its principal attraction for artists was la côte sauvage, literally ‘the wild coast’. Here the land ends abruptly and drops into a boiling sea which, over millennia, has formed fantastically shaped rocks and grottoes. Russell first visited Belle Île in 1886, settled there two years later and built a large house at Goulphar, where he lived for almost 20 years. His obsession with dramatic subjects was typical of his time, as was his practice of painting subjects under different lighting and weather conditions. The intense cobalt blues and emerald greens in the painting, which was completed towards the end of his stay on the island, suggest that Russell’s principal interest in this work was an exploration of colour.
When you come to the Gallery, if you look closely at this painting, you can see that each brush stroke is a slightly different colour. Can you see any long brush strokes? John Russell used mostly little brush strokes; by changing the colour slightly each time his brush touched the painting, he could make us see the shapes of the rocks and cliffs. What happens to all the brush strokes when you stand back from the painting?
The Queensland Art Gallery houses a significant collection of Australian paintings, sculptures, decorative art objects, and works on paper. Find more information on these selected Collection highlights | Indigenous Australian Art | Queensland Heritage | Australian Art to 1975
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