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“John Russell dined with Claude Monet and taught colour theory to Henri Matisse”
QWEEKEND, THE COURIER-MAIL, OCTOBER 27-28, 2018
It's a bit rich when you have to go all the way to Sydney to see some of our best paintings. Luckily I happened to be there anyway recently so I popped into the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) to check out the rather excellent exhibition John Russell: Australia's French Impressionist. What a gorgeous show it is. And it got me thinking about our own holdings of this somewhat unsung Australian art hero. How many works do we have of his?
Quite a few, actually - 15 in total and usually you would see some of them hanging as part of our Australian Collection at the Queensland Art Gallery. Not at the moment, though, because we've lent our best to AGNSW for their exhibition. That's nice of us, isn't it? Even nicer, in deference to this major national exhibition, we are not showing any of Russell's work at all in Brisbane at the moment, so you will actually have to go to Sydney to see ours. We gave them six works and I must say I did feel a little proudly parochial as I browsed and saw that they were on loan from us.
There was quite a bit of traffic through the exhibition the morning we attended, and it really is a stunning show. And an important one. Australian impressionism is, after all, arguably the first Australian art movement and yet the most impressionist of Australia's artists lived and worked in Europe for 40 years. Russell's engagement with French art in the 1880s and '90s led to his painting in a pure French Impressionist style before he explored new directions at the turn of the century.
While artists such as Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton were engaging with ideas of place and identity in their work in Australia and shaping a nationalist genre of art in the 1890s, Sydney-born Russell was painting and forming close friendships with the leading artists in Paris, including Vincent van Gogh and Auguste Rodin. He dined with Claude Monet and taught colour theory to Henri Matisse. That's impressive.
The Sydney exhibition, which is on until November 11, is the first major survey of Russell's work in 40 years and features 120 paintings, drawings and watercolours, including those crackers from the QAGOMA collection. There are a few of his classic Belle Ile paintings, dramatic seascapes and one of ours, Rochers de Belle-Ile (Rocks at Belle-Ile), painted around 1900, is one of the best. La Pointe de Morestile par mer calme (Calm sea at Morestil Point) is another of ours on show. That one was a gift from Lady Trout to the Queensland Art Gallery in 1987 and is a treasured part of our holdings. The good news is that when the exhibition in Sydney is finished some of the best of Russell's works will be be back on the walls at QAG.
Actually I'd like to see them all out, since Russell's place in Australian art history is now being reclaimed. We have enough to fill a wall. If we've got it we should flaunt it, don't you agree?
ON LOAN: Russell’s Rochers de Belle-Ile and La Pointe de Morestile par mer calme, currently at the AGNSW.
Copyright © Phil Brown