John Russell – The Great Australian Impressionist

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John Russell, The Garden, Longpre-les-Corps-Saints, 1887
John Russell, The Garden, Longpre-les-Corps-Saints, 1887

I watched a fascinating documentary the other day about an Australian Impressionist artist named John Russell. This was my first time hearing about this artist, despite him being a fellow Australian and also being connected with many prominent artists like Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh. It seems like there is an endless pool of brilliant artists who I have yet to discover.

In the documentary, he is described as the “great Australian artist that nobody has ever heard of”.

This article will summarize some of the key points about his life and art, but I encourage you to also watch the documentary for yourself as it is very well done.

Early Days

Russell was born in Darlinghurst, Sydney in 1858. He was the son of a successful engineer. When his father passed away in 1879, Russell was left with a substantial inheritance which allowed him to pursue a life of his choosing. He decided to pursue a life of art and moved to London in 1881 to study at the Slade School of Art.

John Russell, In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes, 1891
John Russell, In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes, 1891

Friendships with Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Tom Roberts and Other Artists

Moving overseas to study art allowed Russell to connect with many of the great artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Armand Guillaumin and Emile Bernard.

Russell developed a close friendship with Vincent van Gogh whilst he studied at Atelier Cormon from 1885 to 1887. Below are drawings by Russell of van Gogh.

John Russell, Five Studies of Vincent van Gogh, c.1886-1888
John Russell, Five Studies of Vincent van Gogh, c.1886-1888

Russell also kept in regular contact with fellow Australian artist Tom Roberts. Roberts pursued a different path in art and achieved great commercial success in Australia. The two discussed stories of their journeys and artistic discoveries in many letters to each other. In the letter below to Roberts, Russell describes his dissatisfaction with the academic art of Paris in the time.

“Oct 5, 1887, Paris

My dear Tom Roberts,

I am delighted to hear of your continued success in painting. To have so soon found your road. Here we are all in the dark, too much occupied with style. I’m about finished with them and will jump out of Paris as soon as possible. The tone of things don’t suit me.

Good luck!

Yours ever sincerely,

J P Russell”

John Russell, Cruach en Mahr, Matin, Belle-Ile en Mer, 1905
John Russell, Cruach en Mahr, Matin, Belle-Ile en Mer, 1905

He met Claude Monet in 1886 when he visited Belle-Île, a French island off the coast of Brittany. Belle-Île would end up being a key source of painting inspiration for both Russell and Monet.

Below is a letter from Russell to van Gogh describing his thoughts of Monet's work. He seemed to be critical yet endearing of Monet.

“Sunday, July 22, 1888
Belle-Île-en-Mer

My dear Vincent,

Saw ten of Mr Monet’s pictures down at Antibes. Very fine in color and light and a certain richness of envelop. But like nearly all the so-called Impressionist work, the form is not enough studied. A lack of construction everywhere.

He is undoubtedly a remarkable colorist and full of courage in attacking difficult problems. We should all do the same. It is the only way to get strong.”

Influence on Henri Matisse

Russell proved to be a crucial influence on Henri Matisse's development as an artist. Matisse went from creating dull paintings of grays and browns (like the painting below) to luminous paintings with vibrant colors, all due to the influence of Russell and the other Impressionists. Russell opened Matisse's eyes of what is possible in terms of color.

Henri Matisse painted with Russell during the Summers of 1896 and 1897. During these meetings, Matisse learned about the Impressionist approach to color from Russell. Matisse was fascinated by the luminosity of Russell's paintings and the amount of light he was able to convey on the canvas.

Henri Matisse, Belle Ile, 1896
Henri Matisse, Belle Ile, 1896

Below is a painting of Belle-Île by Matisse which demonstrates his newfound appreciation of color.

Henri Matisse, Belle Ile (Le Port De Palais), 1896
Henri Matisse, Belle Ile (Le Port De Palais), 1896

Vibrant color ends up becoming a key feature of Matisse's work.

Henri Matisse, Dishes and Fruit on a Red and Black Carpet, 1901
Henri Matisse, Dishes and Fruit on a Red and Black Carpet, 1901

Painting of his First Wife

One of my favorite paintings by Russell is below, which pictures his wife amongst a sea of flowers. Her beauty does not take over the painting, but is rather woven in with nature. The painting is a stunning display of broken color and a compressed value range. The reds, oranges and yellows provide a sense of warmth, yet it does not feel overpowering. There is a pleasant subtleness about the painting.

John Russell, Mrs Russell Among the Flowers in the Garden of Goulphar, Belle Ile, 1907
John Russell, Mrs Russell Among the Flowers in the Garden of Goulphar, Belle Ile, 1907

Sadly, his wife passed away in early 1908 after a battle with cancer. Devastated by the loss, Russell is thought to have destroyed many of his paintings. He married again and ended up moving back to Sydney, but he never seemed to reinvigorate his passion for art.

Legacy

Having learned more about Russell's life, his connections with other artists and of course his stunning paintings, it is amazing to think that so few people have heard of him. It is almost like his legacy got lost between the cracks.

I suspect there are a few reasons for this:

  • He was not fully embraced by Australia because he worked mostly overseas and did not return with much of his work. He was also not fully embraced by France, because they favored the French artists.
  • He was not driven by commercial success due to his financial independence.
  • He was shadowed by the fame of the artists who surrounded him. Auguste Rodin wrote in one of his final letters to Russell:

"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."

Whatever the case, he seems to be gaining recognition over time.

John Russell, La Pointe de Morestil, Calm Sea, 1901
John Russell, La Pointe de Morestil, Calm Sea, 1901

What You Can Learn from John Russell

  • Try not to limit yourself to a particular style. Keep an open mind and always try to improve and explore different ways to render the subject. As quoted earlier, Russell was thought many of the artists in Paris were "all in the dark, too occupied with style".
  • There seems to be a great sense of freedom in painting without having to pursue commercial success. But obviously, not everyone is able to do this. Russell was born into a wealthy family so he did not need to sell his paintings.
  • The commentary between Russell and the other master artists indicates that they were humble in their abilities and were always trying to improve. They wrote to each other as if they were comrades on the same mission, rather than competitors.
  • Location seems to be of key importance, especially for landscape painting. If you live in a scenic area, then inspiration will be easier to find.
John Russell, In the Afternoon, 1891
John Russell, In the Afternoon, 1891

Relevant Links

Thanks for Reading!

Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my fundamentals course.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

Read more of my articles. 

48 comments on “John Russell – The Great Australian Impressionist”

  1. What an amazing and interesting article! I’ve never heard of Russell but will seek out his work to study, his colours mirror Van Gogh and I can’t wait to see more of his work. Thank you Dan!

    Reply
  2. You omitted to mention a portrait that John Russell painted of Vincent van Gogh that seems to have impressed the sitter from what I have read.

    Personally I consider it an outstanding piece, perhaps Russell’s most significant contribution to the sitter and the style, and Australian galleries (i.e. NGV and NGA) would seem to be appropriate places for copies of same, if not the original.

    Reply
  3. I heard about John P Russell when one of the members of our Art Appreciation Group gave a talk about him in 2013. When I heard about the documentary I let many people know because he was a great artist. I love his work

    Reply
  4. Thank you for sharing this Dan. The letters make the life of this artist very real. I’ve been looking at one artist on the list from the Master Landscape class each day. I studied history at University but the art history is fascinating.

    Reply
    • Thanks Joan. Yes I found the letters to be most fascinating. Let me know if you stumble across any other master painters which I can add to the list. Cheers, Dan

      Reply
  5. Dan, muito obrigado pelas lições que você tem me passado. Vou te passar alguns nomes dos coloristas escoceses que descobri recentemente:- Samuel Peploe,John Fergusson, George Hunter,John Milene,Francis cadell e Anne Redpth, você vai gostar. Um abraço.

    Reply
    • Hi Sérgio

      I will translate for others:

      Dan, thank you so much for the lessons you’ve given me. I’ll give you some names of the Scottish colorists I recently discovered: – Samuel Peploe, John Fergusson, George Hunter, John Milene, Francis Cadell and Anne Redpth, you will like it. A hug.

      —–

      Thanks Sérgio!

      Appreciate the other artists. I will check them out.

      Dan

      Reply
  6. Many thanks Dan for a most interesting and informative post and the links. I would have loved to have visited the exhibition of Australian Artists work which looked amazing, on in London early on in the year but it proved impossible so it will be great to check out these links.

    Reply
  7. Hi Dan, what a great post. I was just in Sydney and missed the John Russel exhibit at the NSW Art Gallery, But did see the program about him on ABC. Also got to The Tweed gallery. Margaret Olley’s rooms.
    Fantastic.
    Anyway your post was great. Thank you for all you do.

    Reply
  8. Hi Dan,
    Good post as usual. Nice to see an Aussie was up there with the greats of Europe.
    His work looks great, embarrassed to say that I hadn’t heard of him. It was sad that the tragedy of losing the love of his life robbed him of his passion.
    You do fine work finding these posts, I’ve enjoyed reading each and everyone
    since becoming aquatinted with you.
    Keep ’em coming Dan!!.
    Thanks, Dave M. ???

    Reply
  9. Thanks for giving some attention to J P Russell. I also had not heard about him until someone from our Art Appreciation Group gave a talk about him with a PowerPoint presentation of his work. He is an excellent artist and it’s a shame many people don’t know his work.

    Reply
  10. Thank you again for an informative and new experience for an artist that I would have missed. Your articles inspire me to continue to learn more and more avout my art world.

    Reply
  11. Hi Dan,

    Thanks for your great article on John Russell. His watercolours from his later years are wonderful too.
    All the best Sonya

    Reply
  12. You did not mention a link or how to watch this documentary. How can we see it for ourselves.
    Thank you for all the informative emails. I am enjoying the immensely.

    Reply
  13. Imagine, I saw the Monet exhibit at the Denver Art Museum on Thursday. I live but one hours drive from Denver. I agree with your assessment that in painting let the location determine your expressive choice of color. Russell was absolutely correct that at times Monet abandoned form but as viewers looking back in time we may see that straight ahead portrayal of atmosphere only, as very modern. By the time Monet was painting thus, Paris had already had the World expo and Picasso and company were starting out. I am so thankful that you brought Russell to our attention. People don’t realize that there are more works of art lost to history than exist for our attention today. Thank you, Jennifer Eells Hensleigh

    Reply
  14. Although I have been painting since the 60’s, I still go to class, and read your emails thoroughly. I am still getting ‘aha’ moments, you have a good ability to explain your theories. They are always the ones I have been trained up on, but sometimes I slip backwards, and it seems there you are allowing me to get back on the track.
    Thank you,
    Anne Knights

    Reply
  15. Thank you Dan for this info on famous artist.My first painting was Van Gogh A Starry Nite.I love his style.It took me 2 years to finish but I love it.I am inspired by his brush strokes.

    Reply
  16. Hello from the State of Mississippi! I just began painting (age 72) in February last year (something to do during Covid) no training. But have enjoyed it immensely. Many times I start a painting and then I mess up and go in a different direction. A lot of times I tear up the painting and consider it a lesson on what not to do. I have loved your emails of instruction!! I feel so blessed to be retired so I have time to spend more time on this fun hobby. I’ve probably messed up more paintings than I have been satisfied with. Still learning…. thanks again!!

    Reply

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