In the first part of my blog about the Australian painter, John Peter Russell, I told you about his early life in Australia and how his father and brothers had started a foundry and engineering works in Sydney. He then went to England and was apprenticed at a Lincoln engineering company, qualified as an engineer but on the death of his father and the inheritance he subsequently received, gave up his engineering career to become an artist. He studied at the Slade School in London and the Atelier Cormon in Paris.
Russell had previously made painting trips to the Breton isle of Belle Île in 1883 and 1886 and fell in love with the island scenery and the light which offered up the myriad of colours of the island’s nature and the surrounding seas. For Russell, his aim was to capture in his paintings the unadulterated purity of nature’s colour that the light highlighted at different times of the day. To do this Russell realised that making quick preliminary sketches, later to be finished in his studio, would lose the purity of the colour and so he decided that the work had to be completed en plein air if he was to capture the true colour that the light had offered him. He was not alone with this idea as many of the French Impressionists came to the region in search of the rugged beauty offered up by the island. For these artists the island of Belle Île offered them a remote and secluded painting haven with its spectacular cliff configurations and outlying rock structures which had been shaped and whittled away by the unrelenting ferocity of the sea.
Russell summed up his love for Mother Nature and capturing in his works the changing light he experienced on the island when he said:
“…I am a painter of nature, of nature’s moods, of sunlight and the changing temper of the sea”
His good friend the sculptor Auguste Rodin wrote to him about this love of colour, light and his desire to capture every facet of nature’s moods, saying:
“…I am very happy, dear friend, for you that you cling so enthusiastically to nature. I am sure that your art is now full of sincerity and movement…”
One of the most famous Impressionist artists who spent time on Belle Île was Claude Monet. He lived on the island from September to the end of November of 1886, in the tiny village Kervilahouenne. The story goes that Russell met Monet one day, in the late summer of 1886, when Monet was perched high up on a windswept cliff top painting a seascape. Russell approached him and looked over his shoulder at his painting. On recognising Monet’s painting style Russell asked him:
“Ne seriez vous Claude Monet, le prince des impressionists?”
(aren’t you Claude Monet, prince of the impressionists?).
Monet was both amused and somewhat flattered by the question and this led him to allow Russell to sit awhile and paint with him and so an artistic friendship was formed. There can be no doubt that Monet’s work influenced Russell. Although the Australian artist believed in the Impressionist philosophy that the painting should be about light, Russell thought that form should not be disregarded. Monet was fascinated and in love with the island’s wild coastal scenery. He was in awe of the stark wilderness of the island’s landscape and, at first, quite unsettled by the frequent variations in the weather conditions. He knew that the best depictions would be the views of the sea and the rugged cliffs and often had to battle, with an obstinate determination, taking his life into his own hands, to try and gain the best painting position on the cliff edge, notwithstanding the state of the weather at the time. Monet wrote to his friend and fellow Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte of his joy at being on Belle Île and the artistic challenges it offered:
“…I am in a wonderfully wild region, with terrifying rocks and a sea of unbelievable colours; I am truly thrilled, even though it is difficult, because I had got used to painting the Channel, and I knew how to go about it, but the Atlantic Ocean is quite different…”
Monet completed a set of works in 1886, featuring the coastal scenery of Belle Île but when he presented them to his Paris art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, the latter was taken aback by the change in Monet’s work as seen in these new canvases. These were very different from the artist’s Normandy paintings of a decade earlier. Gone were the paintings bathed in sunlight for these Belle Île works were much more sombre and dark and Durand-Ruel was concerned as to whether they would sell. In one such work, The Pyramides at Port-Coton, which Monet completed in 1886, he has magnificently captured the dark craggy rock formations which have been formed by the slow but persistent erosion by the sea and which now stand out like ancient pyramids. The dark colour of these rock formations contrast with the superbly coloured waves which we see buffeting them. Durand-Ruel quizzed Monet about the wisdom of the change in style but the artist was adamant about having variety in his works, saying:
“… I’m inspired by this sinister landscape, precisely because it is unlike what I am used to doing; I have to make a great effort and find it very difficult to render this sombre and terrible sight…”
The art world, like Durand-Ruel were astounded in 1887 when Monet’s Belle Île paintings were first exhibited.
Another of Monet’s Belle Île paintings completed around the same time is entitled Les rochers de Belle-Ile, la Côte sauvage [The Rocks at Belle-Ile, The Wild Coast] which can be found at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. This painting is one of five Monet completed featuring Belle Île. It is in landscape format, unlike the other four, and in it Monet has depicted the never-ending clash between the forces of nature, the sea, and the rocks which try valiantly to withstand its ferocity. Monet has used blues, greens and violets for the sea with white for the tops of the waves to give the stormy sensation.
In Paris Russell had become great friends with Auguste Rodin and through that friendship had met, in 1885, the sculptor’s favourite model, Marianna Mattiocco, whom the sculptor once described as “the most beautiful lady in Paris”. Russell and Marianne married in 1888 and it was now time for Russell to fulfil his much discussed desire – to move away from hustle and bustle of city life in Paris and move permanently to his beloved Belle Île. The year before he had written to his friend and fellow Australian artist, Tom Roberts and told him of his dream:
‘…I am about to build a small house on Belle-Ile, off Brittany. The finest coast I’ve ever seen…”
Russell and his wife moved from Paris to set up home on Belle Île in 1888. He was the first non-native to settle on the island and when he had built his new home, a large manor house, the islanders referred to it as Le Chateau de l’Anglais. The completion of their large and spacious new home, with Russell’s studio facing the Atlantic Ocean, was not just a place for the family to live it was to be the hub of Russell’s summer artist’s colony. Russell set to work on his own paintings of the shores of Belle Île and he would often depict the same type of scenes that Monet had done in 1886. Russell had the same ideas as Monet. He wanted to depict the coastline at different times of the day in different weather conditions always seeking the nuances of changing light. Monet once said that Russell’s Belle Île paintings were better than his own !
Ten years after settling down on Belle Île, Russell played host to another up-and-coming artist, Henri Matisse, during the three summers of 1895 to 1897. Russell spent many hours with Matisse and it is said that he introduced Impressionism to him. They spent hours discussing the importance of light and how light and colour could be captured at different times of the day and under different weather conditions. He also introduced Matisse to the work of his friend from Atelier Cormon, Vincent Van Gogh, who at this time was still to be recognised as a great artist. Matisse always recognised the debt he owed John Peter Russell and in later life said:
“…Russell was my teacher, and Russell explained colour theory to me…”
In 1908 Russell’s wife Marianna died. Russell was devastated by his loss. It is believed that such was his grief that he destroyed four hundred of his works of art. He buried Marianne next to Le Chateau de l’Anglais and decided his time at Belle Île was at an end and so returned to Paris. Later, along with his daughter Jeanne, (Madame Jeanne Jouve), a Paris singer, they travelled extensively through southern France and the Ligurian coast of Italy and for a time he set up home in the Italian coastal village of Portofino. Russell returned to live in Paris and in 1912, married his daughter’s friend, the American singer Caroline de Witt Merrill, whose stage name was Felize Medori. Russell and Caroline set up home in Italy and later Switzerland before moving to England where his sons were serving in the Allied forces. Six years later, in 1921, Russell returned to Australia, and the following year he travelled to New Zealand where he helped one of his sons to set up a business on a citrus farm. In 1923 Russell returned to Australia and bought himself a fisherman’s cottage at Watson’s Bay on Sydney Harbour. John Peter Russell died in April 1930, aged 71. The cause of death was a heart attack which struck him down whilst moving some heavy rocks outside his home. He was survived by his second wife Caroline, their son and six children from his first marriage to Marianna.
Russell was not one to have his paintings exhibited like his fellow artists of the time, such as Monet and van Gogh and so he is less well known but for those that knew him and his painting there was never any doubt about his ability as an artist. Rodin, in one of his last letters to Russell, acknowledged his reputation and his legacy. He 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…”