Frederick McCubbin. Part 2 – The Box Hill Artists’ Camp and the 9 by 5 Art Exhibition

F.McCubbin, SelfPortrait (1913)
F.McCubbin, SelfPortrait (1913)

When I left off Frederick McCubbin’s life story in my last blog the year was 1884 and he was twenty-nine years of age and attending the National Gallery of Victoria School of Art.  His original tutor at this establishment had been Eugène von Guérard, but on his retirement at the end of 1881, the Master of the School of Art was George Folingsby.  Folingsby had been born in Wicklow, Ireland and had studied art in New York and Munich and had won many medals for his works in America and Europe.   He was eventually persuaded to come to Australia by the trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria by offering him a lucrative painting commission and the post as examiner of art teachers.  Later, in June 1882 he accepted the post of ‘Master in the School of Painting’ at the National Gallery School and that September, Folingsby became director of the National Gallery.  Folingsby would go on to have a great influence on McCubbin’s art. 

One of Frederick McCubbin’s closest friends at the time was fellow artist Tom Roberts whom he had met whilst studying at the School of Design, National Gallery of Victoria in 1874.  Roberts was also to influence McCubbin’s art for he had been brought up close to Studley Park in the Kew suburb of Melbourne and he and McCubbin would often go exploring the area and would paint en plein air in this beautiful and wild part of the country.  However painting plein air was not everybody’s favoured style. McCubbin’s tutor Folingsby had been strictly a studio painter and saw no merit in plein air painting.  He never stopped his students working in the open air but was adamantly against such a practice and in James MacDonald’s book, The art of Frederick McCubbin, he quotes Folingsby’s as saying:

“…the man who paints landscape in the open air is a fool…”  

McCubbin and Roberts were apart for four years between 1881 and 1885 when the latter went to London and enrolled on a three-year course at the Royal Academy Schools in July 1881.  Whilst away from Australia, Roberts had also taken the chance to travel around Europe visiting Spain and Venice.  On Tom Roberts’ return to Melbourne in April 1885 the two friends resumed their friendship.  It was also a time when the two artists decided to continue with their great artistic love of outdoor painting and between them they hatched a plan to set up an artist’s camp in the wilderness where the surroundings would become their artistic inspiration and so, in the summer of 1885/6, their plan came to fruition. 

Obstruction, Box Hill by Jane Sutherland (1887)
Obstruction, Box Hill by Jane Sutherland (1887)

The site they chose for their camp was Box Hill some nine miles east of Melbourne and there in the paddock of land owned by David Houston at Damper Creek they pitched their tents.  Although their camp was in the “bush”, less than a mile away there was a nearby railway station, which had opened three years earlier, and it made the journey from Melbourne easy and soon a number of other young artists joined Roberts and McCubbin’s weekend and summer camps.  One such visitor was Jane Sutherland, the New York-born Australian landscape painter and pioneer of the plein air painting movement in Australia.  She was to become a vociferous champion of female artists and fought hard to have them accepted and for them to have equal professional standing with their male colleagues. Whilst at the Box Hill Artists’ camp Roberts and McCubbin produced numerous works although Roberts was by far the most prolific. So, what was it like at this artists’ camp?  There is a letter in the archives of the National Gallery of Victoria from a Mme. Nancy Elmhurst Goode, a visitor to the camp, who describes what she saw:

“…In the vicinity of the Homestead belonging to the Houstons was a patch of wild bush, tall young saplings with the sun glistening on their leaves and streamers of bark swaying, groups of tea–tree, dogwood and tall dry grasses. A fire was lighted and we were invited to share an alfresco lunch, The Don (Abrahams) earnestly frying eggs on a piece of tin, the Prof (McCubbin) busy with billy tea, and the Bulldog (Roberts) joyously cutting bread and butter and taking full command…”

The Artists' Camp by Tom Roberts (1886)
The Artists’ Camp by Tom Roberts (1886)

Tom Roberts captured life at the camp in his painting entitled The Artists’ Camp, which he completed in 1886 and can now be found in the National Gallery of Victoria.  In the work we see Frederick McCubbin seated by their tent drinking his billy tea while Louis Abrahams is bending over the camp fire grilling chops.  There is a relaxed and intimate atmosphere about the scene and we cannot doubt the happy camaraderie that was felt between the artists. 

Lost by Frederick McCubbin (1886)
Lost by Frederick McCubbin (1886)

One notable work produced by McCubbin during this time was entitled Lost, sometimes referred to as The Lost Child.     The painting by McCubbin is based on a true event of a twelve-year old girl, Clara Crosbie, being lost in the bush.   The Argus newspaper reported the incident in May 1885:

“…In the almost trackless wilds of the Lilydale district, intersected by reedy ferns, like an Indian swamp, Clara Crosbie, a girl of 12, was lost nearly a month ago … A town-bred girl of warm affections and quick impulses, she pined in the unaccustomed solitudes of the bush, and she resolved to find her way, though she did not know her way home…”

Clara Crosbie was found alive after being lost in the bush for three weeks.

The young girl we see in the painting, although she has lost her way home, seems fixated by the mistletoe she has collected and which is now held in her apron.  There is no sense of fear about her demeanour.   Maybe she has yet to realise that she is lost and is still fascinated by the wilderness all around her.  I particularly like the way McCubbin has depicted the peeling bark on the trees.  There is a light and airiness about the depicted location which gives one no sense of foreboding about the possibility of having got oneself lost.     The girl in McCubbin’s painting was his younger sister, Mary Anne, affectionately known as “Dolly”.  This is a beautiful work of art which brings out the ingenuousness and vulnerability of the young girl who finds herself alone in the wilderness.   People who viewed the work were reminded of the dangers of straying into the bush and becoming disorientated and in some ways reinforced the belief of people, who had left their home back in Britain, that life in colonial Australia was a challenge.

Moyes Bay, Beaumaris by Frederick McCubbin (1887)
Moyes Bay, Beaumaris by Frederick McCubbin (1887)

All the time the two were together McCubbin was learning from Roberts especially when it came down to the effect the changing light had on the landscape, à la Impressionism.   The following summer (1886/7) McCubbin, Roberts along with two other young artists, Louis Abrahams and Arthur Streeton, rented a cottage near Mentone, a small town  which lay about fifteen miles south-east of Melbourne.  This was a small picturesque coastal town, which had derived its name from the French Riviera seaside resort of Menton.  It was here in 1887 that McCubbin completed his beautiful work Moyes Bay, Beaumaris, sometimes known as The Shore, which is now housed in the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth.  The site of the painting was often referred to as Moysey’s Bay after James Bickford Moysey and his wife Susannah, who, in 1845, were the first European settlers at Beaumaris, (named after the North Wales coastal town, close to where I live).  When the painting was exhibited the art review of the October 7th 1887 edition of the Melbourne newspaper, The Argus, commented:

“…There is a breezy out-of-door feeling about Mr McCubbin’s ‘The Shore’, the tone of the picture strikes us as not warm enough for the season indicated by the attire of the figures. Although the work is impressionist in its general character, the execution of the broken rock, shingle, herbage, and pools of water in the foreground betokens attention to detail…”

Despite the “Impressionist” tag it was given the reviewer is quick to draw our attention to the detail McCubbin has incorporated into his painting.   It is full of features, such as the rock pools and the various sea grasses, which we see in the foreground, as well as the well-crafted reflection of the two main characters depicted in the painting, the woman and the boy.

Windy and Wet by Arthur Streeton (1889)
Windy and Wet by Arthur Streeton (1889)

In 1889 this band of artistic friends decided to hold an exhibition of their work.  Many put their names down as willing to exhibit but as the date of the exhibition neared, many potential contributors dropped out.  This then put pressure on the main protagonists, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, and Charles Conder who between them exhibited almost 150 pieces.   Frederick McCubbin, was a minor contributor putting forward five of his works for the exhibition. The majority of the works were plein air landscapes but there were also a few cityscapes, still-lifes, portraits and genre pieces.  The month before the exhibition opened was chaotic with Roberts, Streeton and Conder having to hurriedly complete more works to fill the gaps caused by the withdrawal of some of the other artists.  The problem of course was that July in Victoria was a wet period of the year and so many of the exhibited works had a “rainy” feel about them, such as Charles Conder’s aptly named work, Windy and Wet.

The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition catalogue cover
The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition catalogue cover

The location of the exhibition was the Buxton Rooms gallery in Swanston Street, Melbourne and the title given to the exhibition, which opened on August 17th, was the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition.  There were 182 paintings in all on display.  The title of the exhibition derived from the size of the works (9 inches x 5 inches), which were exhibited, most of which had been painted on cedar cigar-box lids. On the title page of the catalogue was a quotation from the French painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme:

“…When you draw, form is the important thing; but in painting, the first thing to look for is the general impression of colour…”

In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, the cover of which was designed by Charles Conder, there was an explanation of the style of the work on show:

“…An effect is only momentary … Two half-hours are never alike … it has been the object of the artists to render faithfully, and thus obtain the first record of effects widely differing, and often of very fleeting character…” 

All the oil sketches on display had been swiftly painted en plein air.   What the artists had been aspiring to was a ‘truth to nature’ feel about their works.  They had initially made quick sketches and then added the oil paints and this they believed would encapsulate instantaneous impressions of what they observed.  In some cases they had an unfinished appearance about them but the artists involved maintained they were simply impressions but were completed works.  The public loved what they saw but the press critics were divided.   The art critic of the The Evening Standard was enthused by what she saw and urged people to attend, saying:

“…These daring young Impressionists, who are making an effort to engage amateur art-lovers by presenting, for the first time in Australia, a series of their ‘impressions’, aim at conveying in their pictures a broad effect of tone and colour without the eye being attracted by detail. Some of the ‘impressions’ were caught and painted in a quarter of an hour…Persons interested in art should not fail to visit it. If they have no other satisfaction it will be again to have ocular demonstration of what an artist’s ‘impression’ means…”

However more critical of what he saw was James Smith, the leading art critic of the time and the art critic of The Argus newspaper.  Not only that but he was also a trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria. His vehement and vociferous condemnation of the works on show was brought about because of his belief that they were unfinished works and he was affronted by the artists involved for trying to pass them of as the finished product.  Of them and the artists, he wrote:

“… The modern impressionist asks you to see pictures in splashes of colours, in slap-dash brushwork, and in sleight-of-hand methods of execution leading to the proposition of pictorial conundrums, which would baffle solution if there were no label or catalogue. In an exhibition of paintings you naturally look for pictures, instead of which the impressionist presents you with a varied assortment of palettes. Of the 180 exhibits catalogued on the present occasion, something like four-fifths are a pain the eye. Some of them look like faded pictures seen through several mediums of thick gauze; others suggest that a paint-pot has been accidentally upset over a panel of nine inches by five; others resemble the first essays of a small boy, who has just been apprenticed to a house-painter…”

There is the old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity and the artists decided to use James Smith’s statement to their own advantage and even had it posted at the entrance to the exhibition.  It worked just as they had hoped as people poured in to see these so-called “slap-dash” works that had been so heavily criticised.  Furthermore the artists wrote an open letter to the editor of The Argus defending themselves and their exhibition work, in which they ended up by saying:

“…It is better to give our own idea than to get a merely superficial effect, which is apt to be a repetition of what others have done before us, and may shelter us in a safe mediocrity, which, while it will not attract condemnation, could never help towards the development of what we believe will be a great school of painting in Australia…”

The 9 by 5 exhibition which caused such controversy and so many diverse views is now looked upon as one of the most famous exhibitions in the history of Australian art.   It was also around this time that McCubbin decided to focus his attention on the Australian bush and the struggle that pioneer settlers had in establishing a home on this virgin territory.  In my third and final blog about Frederick McCubbin I will conclude his life story and look at some of his works featuring the pioneering spirit including his most famous painting, the triptych, simply entitled The Pioneer.

     …………………….to be continued.

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Frederick McCubbin. Part 1 – The early years

Self portrait by Frederick McCubbin (1886)
Self portrait by Frederick McCubbin (1886)

A couple of years ago I was in Northern Queensland, Australia on holiday and I had hoped to get an insight into Australian art.  Unfortunately, because we were in the far north of the country, most of the art on display was indigenous art and I have since been told that to get an insight into Australian art of the nineteenth and twentieth century one would have had to be in the major cities of the south such as Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.   The other week however, whilst in London, I took the opportunity to attend an exhibition of Australian art which is currently running at the Royal Academy and finally I came face to face with the art I had been searching for.  The Royal Academy exhibition could be divided into three parts – the indigenous art, the more modern art and the 19th century art, the latter being what I was most interested in.  In my next few blogs I want to introduce you to one of the greats of 19th century Australian art, Frederick McCubbin. 

Frederick McCubbin was born in Melbourne on February 25th 1855.  He was the third of eight children of Alexander McCubbin, a master baker who, along with his English wife of four years, Anne, née McWilliams, had immigrated in April 1852 to Australia from the Ayrshire coastal town of Girvan, Scotland.  He had two older brothers, William John and James Alexander and one younger brother, Robert.   He also had four younger sisters, Mary-Anne, Harriet, Wilhelmina and Helen.   Frederick McCubbin went to the William Willmott’s West Melbourne Common School and later to St Paul’s School in Swanston Street.  So what kind of child was Frederick McCubbin?  In a book written by a family friend, Recollections of Elizabeth Colquhoun, the author wrote:

“…He had a gentle presence, and the air of a poet and dreamer. He was kindly, sincere and single-minded in his outlook. He was energetic, fun, warm and gregarious—and would gesticulate freely with his arms and hands. He was a thinking man, and he liked to make others think and laugh; an extensive and discriminating reader, particularly of biography and high fiction, he enjoyed talking on a wide range of topics.  It was his habit to memorise what he read and to deliver it to the first receptive friend he came across—whether at the opening of an exhibition or at a chance meeting on a tram…”

Although Frederick McCubbin’s early life was a happy one he was constantly aware of the hardships endured by his parents in this new land as they would often talk about the better life they had had back “home”.  There is a manuscript held by the Australian Manuscript Collection entitled Autobiographical reminiscences of Frederick McCubbin and in it is his recollection of those early days at home:

“…Everybody who was grown up spoke of Home, the old Country—Memories of strings of immigrants—coming up from the wharves—talks of ships and the sea—boarding houses … innumerable boxes—with titles such as not wanted on the voyage—sailors—and the maid servants—who told us stories of old Ireland and sometimes Scotland, then people from Home staying with us each bringing their quota of romantic stories of the Old World.  …people said this was a dreadful country and why did they ever come to such a dreary land—and then—the awful Hot Winds that blew in summer—and the fearful dust storms—and the dreary monotonous bush—all the same—no variety, so sad—and sombre—They were a Home sick people…”

McCubbin remembered these times well and the struggle people had to make to survive in this new land.  These thoughts were to remain in his mind when he first started painting some years later.  Frederick never remembered with fondness those early years at school and he left school in 1868, at the age of thirteen, when his father got him a job as a clerk working in Wither’s solicitor’s Melbourne office.  His father had some hope that his son would take an interest in the workings of a solicitor’s office which would then lead him on to training to become a solicitor.  However this employment did not last long as young Frederick found the work boring and uninteresting and spent his time idly sketching instead of working, which eventually caused him to lose his job.    Although his time during the day had been taken up working at the solicitor’s office, his mother was determined to nurture her son’s interest in art, and so in 1869, she arranged for his enrolment at the evening classes at the Artisans School of Design in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton.  It was here that he was tutored in figure drawing and landscape work.  Those who taught him included the school’s drawing master, Thomas Clark, the London-born artist and art teacher who had immigrated to Australia in 1852 and Abram-Louis Buvelot, a Swiss-born émigré landscape painter.  This was Frederick’s first formal artistic training. 

Following his dismissal from the solicitor’s office, he returned home and went to work for his father, driving the baker’s horse and cart around town and the surrounding countryside delivering bread.  Although there may not have been anything edifying about making daily deliveries of bread, young McCubbin was amazed by the countryside scenery around the Yarra River area he saw whilst making deliveries and knew that one day he would put all his memories down in paint on canvas.  

Falls Bridge, Melbourne by Frederic McCubbin (1882)
Falls Bridge, Melbourne by Frederick McCubbin (1882)

Frederick McCubbin may have been contented gaining artistic inspiration during his bread delivery round but his father was neither happy with the way his son’s future was panning out nor was he comfortable with his son’s lack of ambition so he decided to take control of the situation.  In 1871, when Frederick was sixteen years of age, and unbeknown to him, his father signed his son up for a five year apprenticeship with Stevenson and Elliot, a firm of coach painters and wheelwrights.  Frederick’s father felt no guilt about his underhand action as he had convinced himself that he had merely aided Frederick’s artistic ambitions.  Alas, Frederick did not appreciate the gesture and found the work monotonous albeit he did marvel at the craftsmanship and skill shown by his fellow workers.

In 1872, at the age of seventeen, McCubbin, whilst still working at the firm of coach painters, enrolled for twice-weekly evening classes at the School of Design at the National Gallery of Victoria, which had been formed five years earlier.   It was here that he was tutored in draughtsmanship, figure drawing and plein air sketching.  One of his tutors, the school’s drawing master, was once again Thomas Clark, who had moved to this new establishment in 1870.  When Clark retired from teaching in 1876, McCubbin studied under Oswald Rose Campbell, who, like Clark, his predecessor, had only arrived in Australia in 1852, having been born on the Channel Island of Jersey and who had received his artistic training in London.   The Australian artist Tom Roberts enrolled at the school in 1874 and he and Frederick became firm friends. 

In 1877 McCubbin and Roberts attended the National Gallery of Victoria’s School of Painting which had been formed in 1867.  However Frederick’s artistic studies were suddenly put on hold in May 1877 with the sudden death of his father, Alexander.  The cause of death was given as severe apoplexy which had been triggered when he fell down a flight of stairs.   The McCubbin household was in shock and the future of the bakery business was suddenly in jeopardy.  Frederick’s older brother William was fully occupied as a miller and the next eldest brother was not at home having joined the navy.  It thus fell to Frederick to return home and concentrate all his time on helping his mother run the family bakery.  After a short while the bakery business was once again on a firm footing and Frederick withdrew his help and returned to the National Gallery’s School of Painting.  The McCubbin family was to suffer a further family tragedy four years later, in 1881, when the eldest son William was killed in an industrial accident at the family flour mill. 

View near Fisherman's end by Frederick McCubbin (c.1880)
View near Fisherman’s end by Frederick McCubbin (c.1880)

From 1880 to 1882, McCubbin was taught by the great Eugène von Guérard, an Austrian-born artist and then by his successor, the Irish-born and Munich-trained, George Frederic Folingsby and it was he who, in 1883, organised an annual student’s exhibition.  McCubbin exhibited some of his works and won the first prize of £30 at the inaugural event and followed this up in 1884 by winning second prize and £20 the following year.  McCubbin, who was always searching for artistic inspiration, also attended the Victorian Academy of Arts which was formed by a group of like-minded professional and amateur artists in 1870.  McCubbin attended classes here, and exhibited in their annual exhibitions from 1876. He sold his first painting, View near Fisherman’s Bend at the Academy’s 1880 exhibition. 

The Illustrated Australian News
The Illustrated Australian News

During his days as an art student between the late 1870’s and the early 1880’s, Frederic McCubbin earned much-needed money by submitting black and white illustrations for inclusion in two popular Melbourne periodicals, the Australasian Sketcher and the Illustrated Australian News.  These black and white sketches, which featured depictions of public and social life of the both Australia and New Zealand, were the forerunners to photgraphy.  The periodicals were well read by the local middle-classes who wanted to keep up to date with the never-ending progress of the fledgling colony and who wanted to see the latest “new-builds” such as buildings, bridges and the thriving port and railway system.  But it was not just modernity which was depicted in these journals as articles often focused on settlers moving ever-further inland into the new frontier lands as well as the inhabitants who already lived on this new land, the Aboriginal people. 

An Old Politician by Frederick McCubbin (1879)
An Old Politician by Frederick McCubbin (1879)

In 1879 McCubbin, whilst at the National Gallery’s School of Painting, completed a narrative work entitled An Old Politician.  The work depicts George Elliot who had part owned the firm of coach builders which Frederick had earlier worked for.  In the painting McCubbin has bestowed an aura of wisdom upon his sitter and although he was never a politician, McCubbin is pictorially informing us that George Elliot was a wise and well read man who had all the qualities which would have made him an excellent politician.

The Letter by Frederick McCubbin (1884)
The Letter by Frederick McCubbin (1884)

In 1884 Frederick McCubbin produced a wonderful painting which featured one of his younger sisters, Harriet, who was always known by her nickname “Polly”.  The painting which is housed at the Art Gallery of Ballarat is entitled The Letter.  The setting, which is thought to be on the up-stream banks of the Yarra River could well have been painted en plein air by McCubbin who then added the figure of his sister later.  Harriet, who was six years younger than her brother Frederick, also studied art and she would often model for him. 

A Summer Morning Tiff by Tom Roberts (1886)
A Summer Morning Tiff by Tom Roberts (1886)

She also modelled for Frederick’s friend, Tom Roberts.  In one of Roberts’ most endearing paintings entitled A Summer Morning Tiff, which he completed in 1886 we see her as the female involved in the aftermath of a lover’s quarrel.  It is a hot sunny day and tempers have flared.  In the background we can just make out a man with his horse heading into the woods.  He and the girl have had a falling-out and he has stormed off, leaving her to follow him.  When the painting was first exhibited at the Australian Artists’ Association in 1886 it was accompanied by a label, on which was written this poem:

Only a word at the splitter’s track
A thoughtless blunder.
She is fair and haughty and answers bade,
So they part asunder.
With a jerk he loosens the fastening rein –
And she turns her back with a fine disdain
Ah me! sigh the saplings in sad refrain
As she passes under.

In my next blog I will continue with Frederick McCubbin’s life story and look at some of his art which featured the struggle people faced to survive in this new frontier land.

                                                                         ……………….to be continued

Louis Anquetin and cloisonnism

Girl reading a Newspaper by Louis Anquetin (1890)
Girl reading a Newspaper by Louis Anquetin (1890)

Today I have a new artist for you and a new –ism !  My featured painter today is the nineteenth century French artist Louis Anquetin, who was one of the founders of the expressionist style of painting that was referred to as cloisonnism.  This artistic term comes from the French word cloison meaning partition and the French verb to partition off – cloisonner.   Cloisonné was originally a method used in decorating metalwork objects and later was used in the decorating of vitreous enamel. Wires known as cloisons were soldered to the body of the piece, filled with powdered glass and then fired.  There is also a similarity between cloisonné and old Gothic stained glass windows in which various pieces of coloured glass are often built up to form an image and are separated by black lead strips.   So why is the term attributable to an art form?  In art, the term cloisonnism refers to paintings that have areas of pure flat, colour enclosed by dark black outlines.  These areas, of often-unnatural colours, are entirely free of shading or anything that would give them a 3-D effect and so there is an overriding two-dimensional appearance.  In a lot of examples of cloisonnism there was an overwhelming simplicity to the forms seen in this artwork.  In some ways the emergence of cloisonnism was a way of counteracting works by the Impressionist painters who were fixated by depiction of light.  By resorting to cloisonnism, artists were able to bring together their artistic ideas with their chosen subject matter and by so doing, produce a more formidable form of modern art.   The French painters Émile Bernard and today’s featured painter, Louis Anquetin, around 1887, pioneered this new form of art.  Both painters had taken a great interest the Japanese Ukijo-e woodblock prints, which on Japan opening up its markets to the Western World in the late 1860’s, had a decade later become a major source of inspiration to the Post Impressionist artists of France.  Louis Anquetin and Bernard had both studied under Fernand Cormon at his Atelier Cormon in the late 1880’s along with Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec and the featured artist in my last blog, John Peter Russell. 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec by Louis Anquetin (1886)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec by Louis Anquetin (1886)

And so to my featured artist, Louis Anquetin.   Louis Anquetin was born in January 1861 in Étrépagny, a commune in the Eure department in the Haute-Normandie region of northern France.  He was an only child.  His father, George Anquetin, was a butcher by trade and his mother was Rose-Felicite Chauvet.  His father’s business was very successful and Louis was brought up in a prosperous household and being an only child, led a very pampered lifestyle.  When he was eleven years old his parents got him to take an interest in drawing and soon he needed little persuasion to while away the hours sketching.  With his love of drawing successfully nurtured, his parents arranged for him to attend the art school in the nearby city of Rouen, the Lycée Pierre Corneille, named after the 17th century French dramatist.  One of his fellow pupils at the time, who became his lifelong friend, was Edouard Dujardin, a man who would later become a much-respected writer and poet and be first to coin the term cloisonnism

Émile Bernard by Louis Anquetin (c.1887)
Émile Bernard by Louis Anquetin (c.1887)

After leaving school Louis went into the military and served in the 6th Cavalry Regiment of Dragoons.  Once he had completed his military service in 1882, Louis, now aged twenty-two, persuaded his parents to let him try to become a professional artist.  As had been the case for most of his early life, they were reluctant to deny their son anything and so acquiesced to his wish.  Louis travelled to Paris and took up lodgings in the city and went to study at the atelier of the painter, Léon Bonnat.     Whilst at Bonnat’s studio Louis became friends with another of Bonnat’s students, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec.  Louis only remained there a short time as Bonnat gave up his studio when he was appointed professor at the École des Beaux Arts.  In 1884, both Louis and Lautrec then moved on to work at the Atelier Cormon, which was run by the painter, Fernand Cormon.  Among the students there around this time were the Australian painter John Paul Russell, fellow Frenchman Émile Bernard and the Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh.

As we saw in the blog of John Peter Russell the aspiring painters at Fernand Cormon in an effort to improve their portraiture would ask their colleagues to sit for them and Louis Anquetin at this time completed portraits of both Toulouse Lautrec and Emile Bernard. Louis Anquetin eventually left the Atelier Cormon but remained friends with Lautrec, Bernard and van Gogh and often the painters would jointly hold informal exhibitions.  One such “exhibition” was held in July 1887 at the Café du Tambourin, and was hosted by a friend of Van Gogh, the restaurant’s proprietor, Agostina Segatori.   Segatori, an Italian by birth, had been an artist’s model and with the money she had earned, opened up her own Paris restaurant on the Boulevard de Clichy, just round the corner from Theo van Gogh’s apartment, which he shared with Vincent.  She had become a good friend of Van Gogh and the two had a good working arrangement – he supplied the artwork for the restaurant’s walls and she fed him!  This informal exhibition was a red-letter day for Anquetin for it was at this exhibition that he sold his first paintings.

Le Faucher by Louis Anquetin (1887)
Le Faucher by Louis Anquetin (1887)

It was around 1886 that Louis Anquetin was introduced to Georges Seurat and to his new artistic style, which became known as Divisionism or Pointillism (see My Daily Art Display, Oct 21st 2011).  Anquetin and his friend Émile Bernard tried their hand at this new form of art but soon tired of it and adopted a new artistic style of their own, which was christened cloisonnism by Anquetin’s former school friend and now writer, Edouard Dujardin, when he reviewed their work for the symbolist journal, Revue Independent.  He had gone to see their paintings which were on show at the 1888 Salon des Independents exhibition in Paris and the 15th Annual Exposition of Les XX in Brussels.  Two of the best-known cloisonnism paintings by Louis Anquetin are the Avenue de Clichy: Five O’ clock and Le Faucher. 

Avenue de Clichy - Five O'Clock in the Evening by Louis Anquetin (1887)
Avenue de Clichy – Five O’Clock in the Evening by Louis Anquetin (1887)

The work, Avenue de Clichy: Five o’clock in the Evening was painted in a Cloisonnist style with its graceful black outlines as well as the flat treatment of the subjects in the composition and there is a definite influence of Japanese woodcuts in the work.  The subject of the painting gives us an insight of Parisian life in the opulent times of the Third French Republic in the last three decades of the nineteenth century and which lasted until the outbreak of the First World War.   These were good time.  Times of war were over and there was a general sense of optimism and it was a time when the arts flourished and theatre-going and visits to the various Parisian music halls were de rigeur.  This period in French history later became known as the Belle Epoque.  The setting for the painting is the late afternoon on the Avenue de Clichy, which was in Montmartre, near to Anquetin’s home and he would have, on numerous occasions, viewed the hustle and bustle of the throngs of people moving along the Avenue.   It is still raining and people huddle under the awnings looking into the butcher’s shop which is bathed in light, whilst others with umbrellas raised brave the open street.  This work by Louis Anquetin is often looked upon as being one of his finest works.  In his book, Anquetin: La Passion d’être Peintre, the author Frederic Destremau wrote about this painting:

“…the iron and glass awning, an aspect of industrial design, above the butchers shop has a ethereal quality which suggests the roof of a pagoda, the legs strung up in a garland recall Japanese lanterns, the elegant woman seen from behind, raising her skirts, creates a gathering of folds that is drawn in a very Japoniste style, but […] more than any of these details, it is the use of dark outlines and flat colours that brings to mind Japanese prints…” 

It is also interesting to note the inclusion of la boucherie (butcher’s shop) in the left foreground of the painting.  Could this be Anquetin’s way of honouring his father who we know had his own butcher’s shop? This new style of Anquetin and Bernard was very popular with the public and critics alike.   Louis had his works on display at the Fourth Paris International Exposition of 1889, which marked the centenary of the French Revolution. The sale of his works brought him not only fame but also a healthy bank balance and in keeping with his new status he moved his studio from Montmartre to the more fashionable Rue de Rome.   

A Woman on the Champs-Elysées, at Night by Louis Anquetin (c. 1891)
A Woman on the Champs-Elysées, at Night by Louis Anquetin (c. 1891)

In 1891 he exhibited ten of his works at the Salon des Independents and the one that caught everybody’s eye and singled out as a gem was Woman on the Champs-Elysees by Night.  The painting depicts a finely attired woman who is walking alone along one of Paris’ main boulevards.  This somewhat enigmatic figure is illuminated from above by the glow of the streetlights. Although not easy to see, but to the right of the woman, there is a man with a  moustache who is paying close attention to her and one wonders whether he was there to find a companion for the night!   The painting is now housed in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and in a way is a reminder of the lifestyle van Gogh would have experienced whilst staying in the French capital with his brother Theo. Louis Anquetin’s new style of painting was to influence other artists of the time, such as Picasso, Gaugin and Toulouse Lautrec. 

However almost as quick as Anquetin had embraced this cloisonnism style of painting, he abandoned it.  Anquetin often changed his artistic style, always searching for something different.  The next change of style by Anquetin followed on from a trip he took to Belgium and Holland accompanied Toulouse Lautrec.  It was during this visit that Anquetin saw and was influenced by paintings of the great Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens and the Dutch Golden Age painters, Rembrandt van Rijn and Frans Hals.  He was extremely impressed by the brilliant colours used in their works and the fluidity of their brushstrokes and from then on Anquetin realised that he had to change his style yet again and moved to a more classical style. 

Lili Grenier by Louis Anquetin (1929)
Lili Grenier by Louis Anquetin (1929)

He also decided that to retain a classical style he must work in oil, which was a decision contrary to a number of his contemporaries who had abandoned oil in favour of pastels.  He had at this juncture in his artistic career decided to abandon modern art and concentrate on classical art.   Unfortunately this change of painting style meant that his erstwhile artistic friends, who did not share his artistic views, abandoned him.  Toulouse Lautrec and Émile Bernard were the exceptions. Another aspect of classical painting that Anquetin wanted to emulate was the classical painters’ knowledge of the human anatomy which was so well depicted in many of their works.   For that reason Anquetin decided that he too should carefully study anatomy and for two years attended the laboratory of the anatomist, Professor Arroux, in the Paris suburb of Clamart. 

Rubens by Louis Anquetin
Rubens by Louis Anquetin

In 1901 his former mentor and tutor, Fernand Cormon had received a commission to paint murals at the Hôtel de Ville in Tours and he asked Anquetin for his help.  Cormon commissioned his former student to complete four mural panels for the interior of the building each of which would represent four greats of French history – the writer, Honoré de Balzac, the philosopher, René Descartes, the humanist and writer, François Rabelais and the poet and playwright, Alfred de Vigny. In 1906, when Louis was forty-five years old he married an affluent widow, Berthe Coquinot, whose late husband had been an army officer.  The couple moved into a house in the well-to-do rue des Vignes in Paris’16th arondissement.  In their home Louis had a studio for his painting as well as a place to teach his students.  Louis Anquetin had always been interested in the theoretical side of art and would often give lectures on painting techniques and styles. Anquetin wrote a book about his favourite painter Peter Paul Rubens and it was published in 1924.  Louis Anquetin died in Paris in August 1932, aged 71.

John Peter Russell. Part 2 – Belle Île, Monet and Matisse

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. 

Les Aiguilles, Belle-Île by John Peter Russell ((1890)
Les Aiguilles, Belle-Île by John Peter Russell ((1890)

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…”

The Rocks at Belle-Ile, The Wild Coast by Monet (1886)
The Rocks at Belle-Ile, The Wild Coast by Monet (1886)

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…”

The Pyramides at Port-Coton by Monet (1886)
The Pyramides at Port-Coton by Monet (1886)

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.

Les rochers de Belle-Ile, la Côte sauvage by Monet (1886)
Les rochers de Belle-Ile, la Côte sauvage by Monet (1886)

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. 

La Pointe de Morestil par mer calme by John Peter Russell (1901)
La Pointe de Morestil par mer calme by John Peter Russell (1901)

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 ! 

ROCHERS À BELLE-ÎLE by Matisse (1896)
ROCHERS À BELLE-ÎLE by Matisse (1896)

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…”

 

 

John Peter Russell. Part 1. Van Gogh and portraiture

John Peter Russell
John Peter Russell

Last week I watched a documentary on television about the death of Vincent van Gogh.  You have probably seen something similar or read a book on his somewhat mysterious death.   Did he commit suicide?  Was it an accident?  Was he murdered?  Why was the gun never found?  What, if anything, did Doctor Gachet have to do with his death?  Why did both Doctor Gachet and Vincent’s brother Theo allow Vincent to lie in agony for three days at his lodgings with the bullet still in his body rather than rush him to hospital to have it removed?  However the subject of my blog today is not about Van Gogh’s death.  During the documentary it showed a portrait of the great artist and said that it was Van Gogh’s favourite depiction of himself.   What really stimulated my curiosity was to hear that the portrait was completed by a friend of his, an Australian painter by the name of John Peter Russell.  I had never heard of this artist and I could not comprehend how an Australian artist could feature in the Dutchman’s life and so I decided to find out more about him.  In this first of my two part blog on Russell I want to look at his early life and a couple of his portraits including the one of van Gogh.   So come with me on a voyage of discovery and learn about how a former foundry worker in Australia came to paint a portrait of the great Dutch Master.

The story begins at the beginning of the 19th century in Kirkcaldy, Scotland.  It was here that John Peter Russell’s grandfather, Robert Russell, had his foundry and engineering works. Robert and his wife Janet Russell (née Nicol) had eleven children, one of whom, John, was our featured artist’s father.   In 1830 Robert’s business hit financial problems due to a downturn in demand and he decided to immigrate to Canada.  His intended destination changed on the advice of a friend and instead of heading west to Canada he and his family took the steamer Anne Jamieson and sailed to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and arrived in the port of Hobart in June 1832.  Robert Russell along with his sons, Robert, Peter and John started up an engineering works in Tasmania which proved very successful.  In 1838 in order to expand the business the family moved to Sydney and established the firm, Russell Brothers with an engineering works and a foundry on the banks of the Tank Stream, a tributary of Sydney Cove. 

John Russell married and English girl, Charlotte Elizabeth Nichol, and they went on to have four children of which John Peter Russell, the subject of today’s blog, was the eldest.   He was born in June 1858 in the Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst.  John Peter was educated at the Goulburn School in Garrooriagang, a private boarding school for the “sons of gentlemen”.  After completing his education in 1876, the eighteen year old travelled to England and was apprenticed at the engineering company, Robey & Co. of Lincoln and eventually became a qualified engineer.   It was also around this time that he began to take an interest in sketching and painting.   In 1879 John Peter Russell’s father died and left his children a sizeable inheritance. 

In 1881, John Peter Russell who thanks to his inheritance was financially sound and did not need to continue as an engineer.   He decided to pursue his love of art and enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Arts at the University College of London.  Whilst at the Slade he studied under the Dijon-born French painter and sculptor, Alphonse Legros.  Legros would delight his students by showing them his quick preliminary oil sketches (known as ébauches) of the head portraits he had done and it was this type of painting which grabbed Russell’s interest. 

In August 1883, after completing his art course at the Slade, Russell decided to set off on his travels.  His fellow travellers were his brother Percy, an architect, Tom Roberts, a fellow aspiring artist who would later become a leading figure of the Australian Heidelberg School of Impressionism and who, like Russell, had emigrated with his family from the UK to Australia when he was fourteen years of age.  Tom Roberts had returned to his birthplace, London, to study art at the Royal Academy Schools.  Another person in the travel party was the physician and friend William Maloney who would later become a Labour MP.    Their first port of call was Spain where they encountered two Spanish art students Laureano Barrau, who would become a leading Spanish Impressionist painter and the Catalan painter Ramon Casas who would later be known for his paintings depicting crowd scenes. 

In 1885 Russell went to live in Paris and for the next eighteen months studied at the Atelier Cormon, which was run by the French painter, Fernand Cormon.  It was an “academic” studio in which Cormon endeavoured to instil in his students the necessary artistic “rules” which would ensure that their paintings found favour with the Paris Salon jurists.  Many great painters, such as Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin, and Toulouse Lautrec studied under Cormon during Russell’s tenure.  Russell who had studied portraiture at the Slade School of Art was still interested in portraiture and would often paint portraits of his friends and fellow students.    In March 1886 whilst Russell was attending the Atelier Cormon another student enrolled – Vincent van Gogh.  Vincent had moved to Paris and went to live with his brother Theo in his apartment in rue Laval on Montmartre in order to study at Cormon’s studio.   A great and long-lasting friendship developed between Van Gogh and Russell.  In October 1886, Russell finally persuaded Van Gogh to sit for him.  The resulting work was the beautiful crafted portrait of the Dutchman which I spoke about at the beginning of the blog. 

Vincent van Gogh by John Peter Russell, 1886
Vincent van Gogh by John Peter Russell, 1886

Although Russell had painted portraits of his friends it is believed that he wanted to paint Van Gogh’s portrait as the depiction of the Dutchman’s face would be a challenge with its craggy and somewhat haggard appearance.     Russell had seen some of Van Gogh’s own head and shoulder portraits and self portraits and liked the way the Dutchman had used an academic style in his portraiture, incorporating darkened background as a contrast to the lighter skin tones and so decided to use this same technique on his own depiction of van Gogh.  He has given Van Gogh such a penetrating gaze as he stares out at us which in some ways makes us feel slightly uncomfortable.  It is almost a censorious gaze as if he is questioning our presence.    What I think adds to the beauty of this portrait is how Russell has got van Gogh to look over his shoulder for the pose and of course to remind every one of the sitter’s profession he had the Dutchman hold a paintbrush.  Vincent van Gogh was delighted with Russell’s finished portrait.   On September 6th 1889, ten months before his death, Vincent wrote to Theo and in it he mentioned the Russell portrait: 

“……….Afterwards, what are we beginning to glimpse timidly at the moment that is original and lasting – the portrait. That’s something old, one might say – but it’s also brand new. We’ll talk more about this – but let’s still continue to seek out portraits, above all of artists, like the Guillaumin and Guillaumin’s portrait of a young girl, and take good care of my portrait by Russell, which means a lot to me.….”

The painting, which is at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, has itself darkened over the years as on a recent microscopic examination it was discovered that, above the head of van Gogh, there had been inscribed in red the words:

 

                                       VINCENT

                                                                      AMITIÉ

 

                                      J.P.RUSSELL  PINTOR

 Paris 1886

 

Also according to the Museum curators, a friend of John Peter Russell and van Gogh, the British artist Archibald Standish Hartrick, had seen the original portrait soon after it had been completed and he said that Vincent was depicted in the portrait wearing a striped blue suit !   According to the museum curators there is a hint of blue near the mid base of the work.

Russell and Van Gogh were great friends for the short time they were together and after they went their separate ways they continued to correspond.  One of the last letters Vincent wrote to Russell on February 1st 1890 just five months before his death and when he was in the mental hospital in St Rémy.

My dear friend Russell

Today I’m sending you a little roll of photographs after Millet  which perhaps you may not know.  In any event, it’s to recall us, my brother and myself, to your good memory. Do you know that my brother has since married and that any day now he’s expecting his first-born? May it go well – he has a very nice Dutch wife.  How it pleases me to write to you after a long silence.   Do you remember the time when, almost simultaneously, you I think first and I afterwards, met our friend Gaugin?    He’s still struggling on – and alone, or almost alone, like the good fellow he is. Am sure, though, that you don’t forget him.  He and I are still friends, I can assure you, but perhaps you’re not unaware that I myself am ill, and have more than once had serious nervous crises and delirium. This was why, having had to go into an asylum for the insane, he and I separated. But prior to that, how many times we talked about you together!   Gaugin  is currently still with one of my fellow-countrymen called De Haan, and De Haan praises him a great deal and doesn’t find it at all bad to be with him.  You will find article on canvases of mine at the Vingtistes.   I assure you that I myself owe a lot to things that  Gaugin told me as regards drawing, and hold his way of loving nature in high, very high esteem. For in my opinion he’s worth even more as a man than as an artist. Are things going well with you? And are you still working a lot?  Although being ill isn’t a cause for joy, I nevertheless have no right to complain about it, for it seems to me that nature sees to it that illness is a means of getting us back on our feet, of healing us, rather than an absolute evil.  If you ever come to Paris,  take one of my canvases from my brother’s place if you wish, if you still have the idea of making a collection for your native country one day.  You’ll remember that I’ve already spoken to you about it, that it was my great desire to give you one for this purpose. How is our friend  MacKnight?   If he’s still with you, or if there are others with you whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, give them my warm regards. Above all, please remember me to Mrs Russell and believe me, with a handshake in thought,

Yours truly,

Vincent van Gogh

c/o Doctor Peyron

St-Rémy en Provence.

Head of Mrs. John Peter Russell (Marianna Mattiocco della Torre) by Auguste Rodin
Head of Mrs. John Peter Russell (Marianna Mattiocco della Torre) by Auguste Rodin

Whilst living in Paris, Russell had become very friendly with two Parisian sculptors, Auguste Rodin and Emmanuel Frémiet and it was whilst visiting their studios that he encountered one of Rodin and Frémiet’s’ favourite models, Marianna Mattiocco della Torre. Rodin had, in 1888, encapsulated her beauty in a bronze bust entitled  Head of Mrs. John Peter Russell (Marianna Mattiocco della Torre) and Frémiet had used Marianna as the model for his bronze life-sized Jeanne d’Arc statue which is at the Place des Pyramides in Paris. 

Equestrian statue of Joan of Arc by Emmanuel Frémiet (1899)
Equestrian statue of Joan of Arc by Emmanuel Frémiet (1899)

Marianne who was born in Cassino, Italy was in her early twenties when she met Russell in 1885 and three years later, on a cold Parisian day in February 1888, John Peter Russell and Marianna Mattiocco became husband and wife.  By the end of the year the happy couple had left Paris and set up home at Belle Isle, the largest of the Breton islands, off the west coast of Brittany.  It was here that Russell had their home built and because he was the first non-Frenchman to settle on the island his house was known as Le Chateau Anglais. 

Dadone by John Peter Russell (1900)
Dadone by John Peter Russell (1900)

The second portrait by John Peter Russell I want to show you is entitled Dadone and was completed around 1900.  The question is who or what is Dadone?  The word “dadone” I believe, but I am by no means certain, is an old fashioned Italian slang for “ancestor” or literally “old one” and therefore indicates that the subject has some sort of family relationship with Russell. 

Les deux Mattiocco by John Peter Russell (1902)
Les deux Mattiocco by John Peter Russell (1902)

The answer to the question can be found in a double portrait which was painted by Russell a few years later, entitled Les deux Mattiocco which has, at the top of the work, the inscription ‘Maria Peppa-Y-Pascal Mattiocco’.  The painting, which depicts an elderly couple, is of Russell’s father and mother-in-law, Pasquale and Maria Mattiocco.   

The date of the Dadone painting is thought to be 1900 as there is a preliminary sketch for the work in existence, inscribed, ‘JPR 00’ dating it at 1900 and it is thought that the final painting was completed shortly afterwards.

In the painting, Dadone, we see an inscription in the top right corner of the work:

Dadone

        J R

                Fecit

The inscription indicates the title of the work, the initials of the artist and the word “fecit” meaning he or she made it and the word is used formerly on works of art next to the artist’s name. 

This beautifully crafted portrait by Russell is an affectionate and personal depiction of his wife’s father.  The main colours used by Russell in this work are white, blue and greys profile.  The bony structure of his head is framed by the imperious greying hair and beard, which along with dark bushy eyebrows give his father-in-law such a distinguished appearance.  His eyes are dark and there is a hint of tiredness about them, which has been brought on by age. 

In my next blog, the second part of my look at the life and work of John Peter Russell, I will examine his newly found interest in seascapes and landscapes once he had moved out of Paris and went to live on the Breton island of Belle-Ile where he met with many artists such as Monet and Matisse. 

For further information regarding Russell’s friendship with Vincent van Gogh there is a book you may like to read.  As yet I haven’t read it but I am sure it would be fascinating.  It is:

A Remarkable Friendship:  Vincent van Gogh and John Peter Russell by Anne Galbally

There is also an interesting short video on YouTube about the Van Gogh portrait and the inscriptions that were originally on it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6z46c93SXQ