Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
John Peter Russell & Vincent van Gogh
Early in November 1886, when the overcast sky was struggling to light his Montparnasse studio, a 28-year-old painter from Sydney took up his brush and began work on a portrait. His sitter was a fellow hopeful in the febrile Impressionist-dominated Parisian artistic milieu – a gloomy, carrot-haired Dutchman. Nobody had ever asked to paint Vincent van Gogh before and the 33-year-old was dead chuffed. He wore his best suit.
Unlike his subject, Darlinghurst-born John Peter Russell was no man of sorrows. Tall and athletic, he had studied engineering and dutifully gone into the family ironworks business, dreaming all the while of being an artist. When his father’s sudden death left him with a sizeable inheritance, he took off for London and the Slade School of Art. After tramping the length of Spain with Tom Roberts, a mate from Melbourne, he sought the artist’s life in Paris.
He met Vincent van Gogh at the atelier where they both took drawing lessons. Russell was a man’s man, popular with the other students, among them Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Van Gogh was an outsider – remote, intense and cold-shouldered by the frogs. But he praised Russell’s work and shored up his artistic confidence.
The Australian, fascinated by van Gogh’s careworn face, made some sketches in black crayon. Now, after a summer of painting en plein air, the time had come to render his subject in oils.
Lacking money to pay models, van Gogh had taken to painting self-portraits; dark background, head and shoulders only. Russell took the same approach. He instructed his subject to look back over his shoulder, a paintbrush poised in his hand, every inch a committed artist.
Van Gogh was delighted with finished product. Three years later, nearing his end in Arles, he wrote to his brother Theo “take good care of my portrait by Russell, which means a lot to me.”
While van Gogh wrestled with the sunflowers and starry nights of Provence, Russell was building a house on an island off the coast of Brittany. Monet came to visit him there as well as Rodin, who sculpted a bust of Russell’s wife, Mariana, mother of his 13 children. Matisse stayed for three months and urged him to exhibit. In July 1890, Russell learned that his friend Vincent had walked into a wheat field and shot himself.
Russell’s investments turned bad, his wife died and he failed to establish himself in the intensely competitive art worlds of Paris and London. His attempts to donate his art collection to an Australian gallery fell upon stony ground. He sold his house and returned to Sydney. He died there in 1930, picking up a rock.