Important Australian + International Fine Art
29 August 2007


(1858 - 1930)

oil on canvas on composition board

55.0 x 47.0 cm

signed lower right: JP RUSSELL

$200,000 - 250,000
Sold for $228,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 2 - 29 August 2007, Melbourne

Bequeathed by Dodge Macknight to his sister-in-law, Elise Queyrel, Massachusetts, USA
Thence by descent, Mrs George W. Bruce, Massachusetts, USA
Thence by descent, private collection, Delaware, USA


An Impressionist in Sandwich: The Paintings of Dodge Macknight, Heritage Plantation of Sandwich, Massachusetts, 15 November - 21 December 1980, cat.68 (illus. p.4)


Letter from Vincent van Gogh to John Peter Russell, Arles, 21 April 1888 (collection of The Guggenheim Museum, New York)
Pickvance, R., Van Gogh in Arles, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1984, p.253
Bailey, M., 'A Friend of Van Gogh, Dodge Macknight and the Post-Impressionists', Apollo Magazine, London, July 2007, pp.28-34, pl.4 (illus.)
This work will be illustrated in The complete correspondence of Vincent van Gogh, to be published by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam in 2009

Catalogue text

'You know I thought and think such a great deal of those [works] of yours. I don't gainsay that your portraits are more serious and higher art, but I think it meritory in you and a rare quality that together with such perfection as appeared to me in the Fabian and Macknight portraits you are at the same time able to give a scherzo, the adagio con espressione, the gay note, in one word together with more manly conceptions of a higher order. And so I heartily hope that you will continue to give us simultaneously both the serious and elaborate works and those aforesaid scherzos. Let them say if they like that you are not always serious or that you have done work of a lighter sort "so much the worse for the critics and the better for you.'1

When one of the greatest exponents of modern portraiture, Dutch master Vincent van Gogh, thus extolled the present Portrait of Dodge Macknight, c.1887, as among the most consummate works by Australia's 'lost' impressionist, John Peter Russell, he expressed a sentiment that, more than a century later, still endures. Indeed, the work not only occupies an esteemed position within the artistic oeuvre of Russell but, as the only known portrait of the American watercolourist, bears invaluable historical significance as well. With its location unknown until recently, the discovery is a particularly exciting one for art critics and collectors alike; as acknowledged by Ursula Prunster, Curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and responsible for the major Belle-Ile exhibition in 2002 featuring the work of Russell, Monet, and Matisse, 'I have been looking for this painting for awhile...'2

Although today languishing in relative obscurity, during his lifetime Dodge Macknight was highly regarded by his contemporaries as America's first modernist and certainly, one of the world's four greatest watercolourists.3 Discussing his legacy, a critic for The New Bedford Standard suggested, 'In contemplating an exhibit of Macknight's work, one should bear in mind that he is an extremist in an extreme school. His work should not be judged merely in the light of one's own taste, but as an exposition of the artist's conceptions. Some people call his paintings mere daubs of colour, others designate them as recorded thoughts transmitted through the eyes.'4

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Macknight began his career in the art world as an apprentice to a theatrical scene designer before entering the firm of Taber Art in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a company that manufactured reproductions of paintings and photographs. In December 1883, at the age of 23, he migrated to Paris where he enrolled at the studio of Academic painter Fernand Cormon, studying alongside Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard and Louis Anquetin, together with the two artists who would play a key role in introducing Macknight to the Parisian avant-garde, Eugène Boch and John Peter Russell.

As Martin Bailey elucidates, Macknight and van Gogh first met through Russell in March 1886, the month that van Gogh joined Cormon's studio, having arrived in Paris from Antwerp on 28 February 1886. Shortly thereafter, Macknight left Paris, heading first for the south of France and later that year for the Algerian coast, while van Gogh remained in Paris for another two years, during which he frequently met with Russell.5 Indeed, it was most probably during this period that the Dutchman posed for the celebrated portrait by Russell which, now housed in the van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, he clearly cherished; as he would later write to his brother Theo, 'Take good care of my portrait by Russell which I hold so dear.'6

On 20 February 1888, van Gogh arrived in Arles and several weeks later, Macknight came to Provence, staying in the village of Fontvielle, north-east of Arles.7 Writing to his friend Eugene Boch, Macknight noted that he had 'unearthed a couple of artists at Arles - a Dane [Christian Mourier-Petersen]' and Vincent whom I had already met at Russell's - a stark, staring crank, but a good fellow.'8 Van Gogh too would recount the meeting in a subsequent letter to Russell: 'Last Sunday, I have met Macknight and a Danish painter, and I intend to go to see him at Fonvielle [sic.] next Monday. I feel sure I shall prefer him as an artist to what he is as an art critic, his views as such being so narrow they make me smile.'9 And again, in his correspondence with Theo, 'I am to go and see him and his work, of which I have so far seen nothing. He is a Yankee, and probably paints better than most Yankees do, but a Yankee all the same. Have I said enough? When I have seen his pictures or drawings, I'll tell you what I think of his work. Meantime, so much for the man...'10 Ironically perhaps, van Gogh's brusque assessment reflects more of his own notoriously volatile personality than any real dissatisfaction with Macknight, for only days later he would mention to his brother that he had invited the American to move into the Yellow House: 'It is not impossible that he [Macknight] may come to stay with me for some time here. I think we should both benefit by it.'11

Upon sighting Macknight's work for the first time, van Gogh was typically gruff, recalling to Theo that 'he [Macknight] has reached the stage where he is plagued by new colour theories, and while they prevent him from working on the old system, he is not sufficiently master of his new palette to succeed in this one.'12 Yet, despite his criticism, the Dutchman was obviously impressed for less than one month later, after having seen various still-lifes that Macknight had just finished featuring 'a yellow pot on a violet foreground, a red pot on a green, an orange pot on blue'13, he executed one of his famous Sunflower canvases with orange flowers in a yellow pot, set against a turquoise background.14 Thus, contrary to the popular assumption of van Gogh as an artistic recluse in Arles, it would seem rather that he and Macknight were exploring in tandem the theory of disparate colour complementaries.15

At the same time, working with Monet on the remote, storm-tossed island of Belle-Ile-sur-le-mer off the coast of Brittany, interestingly Russell was embracing very similar techniques; as he elucidates in a letter to Heidelberg school artist Tom Roberts back in Melbourne: 'No vehicle colour only on absorbed canvas or better on stiff canvas prepared only with glue. Simple colour but strong, kept pure as long as possible.'16 Although the canvas is by no means raw and the colour not always pure, the present portrait is, notwithstanding, an impressive demonstration of the French impressionist technique, with the fractural brushwork ranging from the boldness of the background and sitter's attire to the fine cobwebbed strokes of his face and neck. Closely related to Russell's highly acclaimed Portrait of Dr William Moloney c.1887 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), the portrait moreover betrays that powerful quality of immediacy and informality so essential to the vision of the European avant-garde.

Following in the footsteps of Russell and Monet, in November 1888 Macknight made the first of many visits to Belle-Ile where, pursuing a passion for colour shared and encouraged by the Australian, he would produce some of the finest watercolours of his career. In 1892, he married the governess of Russell's children, Louise Queyrel, and in 1897 the couple and their young son returned to the United States, settling in East Sandwich where Macknight would remain for the rest of his life. Although initially condemned as 'grotesque and uncouth'17 - barbs not unfamiliar to impressionist artists internationally at that time - his work was soon eagerly sought-after and acquired by public and private collectors alike including eminent art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, who had a dedicated 'Macknight Room' in her house at Fenway (now the Gardner Museum) and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts which purchased its first watercolour by Macknight in 1907 (five years before the first Sargent acquisition).

Returning to America with Macknight and subsequently passed down through the artist's family, thus the present work not only offers a rare glimpse into one of the most fascinating yet often forgotten members of impressionism but moreover, an impeccable provenance. In addition to its historical significance, Portrait of Dodge Macknight also embodies the radical avant-garde theories and experiments which, gleaned by Russell through his personal connection with the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, so distinguish him from the local movement pioneered by the Heidelberg school; as Rodin astutely prophesised of Russell's artistic legacy, 'Your works will live on, I am certain. One day you will be placed on the same level as our friends Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh.'18

1. Van Gogh to Russell, Arles, c.21 April 1888
2. Prunster, in conversation with Deutscher and Hackett art specialists
3. Hind, L., Art and I, New York, 1921, pp.98, 100-101 & 176. The other three were Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Hercules Brabazon Brabazon.
4. The New Bedford Standard, January 1902 cited in An Impressionist in Sandwich: The Paintings of Dodge Macknight, Trustees of the Heritage Plantation of Sandwich, Massachusetts, 1980, p.6
5. Bailey, M.,'A Friend of Van Gogh: Dodge Macknight and the Post-Impressionists', Apollo, July 2007, p.30
6. Van Gogh to Theo, Arles,
7. Bailey, op.cit.
8. Macknight to Boch, Fontvielle, 17 April 1888
9. Van Gogh to Russell, Arles, c.21 April 1888
10. Van Gogh to Theo, Arles, c.24 April 1888
11. Van Gogh to Theo, Arles, c.4 May 1888
12. Van Gogh to Theo, Arles, c.4 May 1888
13. Van Gogh to Theo, c.25 July 1888
14. Bailey, op.cit., p.32
15. ibid.
16. Russell to Roberts, 26 December 1887
17. An Impressionist', op.cit., p.6
18. Rodin cited in Joseph Brown catalogue, Melbourne, 1968