Lasting impressionist

Lasting impressionist

I was in a world of my own, puzzling over my recent run of form at chess – when playing against Fahar [see Reopening Gambit, Greyhares blog, 28 January 2016] it was most unusual for me to win four games in a row. Suddenly, all became clear; my success was thanks to my bishops and the way in which they had been marshalled. For nearly seventy years – I started playing aged six – I had believed that bishops and knights had equal value. My new insight was a eureka moment; in my hands, the bishop is actually the more powerful piece. Many will see my discovery as trivial, even trite, to me it was riveting and, evidently, the expression on my face reflected the pleasure the new insight gave me.

It was a dank morning and the man walking towards me had a face to match. As he got near, his face broke into a sparkly-eyed grin. His change was, he explained, in response to the happiness radiating from my face and he asked what had suddenly happened to make me look so content. Once I discovered that he too played chess I was able to explain – it was all due to my new insight into bishop power. His smile broadened further and his shaking shoulders joined in; the idea that someone could get a buzz from such an insight added to his amusement. He was not to know the deep glow that discovery always gives me.

As exciting as is the current chess revelation, the pleasure it gives has been dwarfed by another finding that has been maturing over recent weeks. This second insight relates to the forgotten Australian impressionist John Peter Russell.

Russell was born in Sydney in 1858 to a London-born mother and a Scottish father. When he was twenty three he came to England to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. Next, he went to France and after a brief period studying at a Paris studio, he set up home on Belle Île, an island off the Brittany coast. Here, he continued painting for the majority of his working life, returning to Australia in 1921 at sixty three.

As a young man in France he befriended and learned from such luminaries as Monet, Rodin, van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. He set up an artists’ colony on his island and it was there that he worked with and influenced the young Henri Matisse. Indeed, it was through my reading about Matisse that I learned of Russell, and began my captivating journey of discovery.

At a recent exhibition at the Vuitton Gallery in a Paris, a short film told how Matisse’s famous 1909 painting Dance was influenced by William Blake’s painting Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing. Matisse had seen it in London in 1898 where he went on the suggestion of Russell who urged him to study first hand the works of Turner. Whether Matisse came across Blake’s painting by chance is not known, but it would have been hanging just down the corridor from Turner’s works at the Tate Gallery.

Despite Russell’s obscurity now, this was not the case at the end of the nineteenth century, at least amongst the painters of the time. After all, Matisse, recently out of law school, chose to spend several weeks studying under Russell in 1896 and 1897. After being with him, Matisse’s style is said to have changed fundamentally. Indeed, Matisse wrote, “Russell was my teacher, and the person who explained colour theory to me.”

If Russell was so influential then, what were his paintings like? Moreover, how come one so rarely see his works at exhibitions, or his name amongst the traditional lists of painters of the period? An internet search or a visit to the current exhibition on Australian Impressionists at London’s National Gallery, immediately reveals what Matisse liked – Russell was a true impressionist and gifted colourist whose work was exceptional.

Arguably not a first rank impressionist, but he does not deserve to be written out of art history in Europe and, to an extent in Australia. How could this happen? As I see it, because of his wealth and modest demeanour he did not need, or wish to, market his output in the way that Matisse had to in order to survive. Russell was productive but much of his work never left the studio. Moreover, he destroyed over 400 of his oil paintings and water colours before returning to Australia. Whether the two are related is not clear, but when he was fifty, his wife died leaving him utterly distraught and it seems he never really recovered.

How society chooses to remember Russell is of minor concern to me; at a selfish level, I have discovered him for myself and, as with all such discoveries, this has created then turned new cogs in my mind, and that is pleasure enough. But, as with my chess insights that have allowed me to improve my game, my discovery about Russell also has a tangible element. I have gained enormous pleasure by seeing Russell’s work. I am even wondering whether to go to Australia in 2018 to see the promised Russell retrospective.


Illustration: In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes, c. 1891 by John Peter RussellPublic Domain

And there’s more…

A collection of 50 of Joe Collier’s essays from Greyhares, 2009 – 2017

“A self-confessed snooper with an insatiable curiosity about everyone he encounters. Joe Collier describes the pleasures, irritations, mishaps and oddities of everyday life with a humane and humorous eye.”

Lee Langley (winner of the Writers’ Guild Award & Commonwealth Writers’ Prize)

In the Fullness of Time is published by The London Press and will be available from 17 March 2017. To order, select your shipping destination and click the Buy Now button below:

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