Life and work
John Peter Russell was born at the Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst, the eldest of four children of John Russell, a Scottish engineer, his wife Charlotte Elizabeth, née Nicholl, from London. J. P. Russell was a nephew of Sir Peter Nicol Russell. After his father's death J. P. Russell enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London, on 5 January 1881 and studied under Alphonse Legros for three years. Russell then went to Paris to study painting under Fernand Cormon. (His fellow students there included Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Émile Bernard.) Russell was a man of means and having married a beautiful Italian, Mariana Antoinetta Matiocco, he settled at Belle Île off the coast of Brittany, where he established an artists' colony. He would have 11 children with Matiocco, of whom six survived.
Russell had met Vincent van Gogh in Paris and formed a friendship with him. Van Gogh spoke highly of Russell's work, and after his first summer in Arles in 1888 he sent twelve drawings of his paintings to Russell, to inform him about the progress of his work. Claude Monet often worked with Russell at Belle Île and influenced his style, though it has been said that Monet preferred some of Russell's Belle Île seascapes to his own. Due to his substantial private income Russell did not attempt to make his pictures well known.
In 1897 and 1898 Henri Matisse visited Belle Île. Russell introduced him to impressionism and to the work of van Gogh (who was relatively unknown at the time). Matisse's style changed radically, and he would later say "Russell was my teacher, and Russell explained colour theory to me."
Russell's daughter, Madame Jeanne Jouve, known in Paris as a singer, has stated that he had built up a collection of impressionist works – Van Gogh, Gauguin, Émile Bernard, Guillaumin – which he intended to give to Australia, but none is known to have survived beyond his death. In 1907, Russell's wife Matiocco died in Paris. Grief-stricken, Russell buried her next to his home and destroyed 400 of his oils and watercolours. Auguste Rodin despaired at the destruction of "those marvels", and in one of his final letters to Russell, said "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." Russell returned to Sydney, where he later suffered a heart attack and died in 1930.
Russell was a friend of Auguste Rodin and Emmanuel Frémiet, and his wife's beauty is immortalised in Rodin's Minerve sans Casque and Fremiet's Joan of Arc. Five of Russell's sons served in France during World War I. His portrait of van Gogh, painted about 1886-7, was at the Van Gogh Museum, at Amsterdam in 1938. A sheet of portrait drawings of van Gogh is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Two water-colours and a small oil painting are in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and there is a drawing in the Adelaide collection.
He was also a lifelong friend of Tom Roberts, one of the main figures of the Australian Heidelberg School of impressionism. Russell wasn't directly involved in this movement, giving him the title "Australia's Lost Impressionist".
- Galbally, Ann E.: Russell, John Peter (1858 - 1930), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, MUP, 1988, pp 483-484. Retrieved 25 November 2009
- Ronald Pickvance, Van Gogh In Saint-Remy and Auvers, pp. 62-63 , Exhibition catalog, Published: Metropolitan Museum of Art 1986, ISBN 0-87099-477-8
- The Unknown Matisse..., ABC Radio National, 8 June 2005
- The Art of John Peter Russell. Women's Weekly. 3 May 1967. p. 34
- Roger Butler, 'Proctor, Alethea Mary (Thea) (1879 - 1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, MUP, 1988, p. 301.
- Australian Dictionary of Biography retrieved 17 February 2010
- John Peter Russell: Lost Impressionist, Arts Today with Bruce James. abc.net.au. Retrieved on 3 February 2011.
- Salter, Elizabeth: The lost impressionist, Angus and Robertson, 1976. ISBN 0-207-95566-2
- Galbally, Ann: The Art of John Peter Russell, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1977. ISBN 0-7251-0271-3
- (French) Onfray, Claude-Guy: Russell ou la lumière en héritage, Lorisse-Le livre d'histoire, Paris, 1995. ISBN 2-84178-019-8
- Galbally, Ann: A Remarkable Friendship: Vincent van Gogh and John Peter Russell, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2008. ISBN 978-0-522-85376-6
- John Peter Russell at Australian Art