Important Fine Art + Indigenous Art
29 November 2017


(1858 – 1930)

oil on canvas

66.5 x 81.5 cm

signed, dated and inscribed with title along bottom edge: AU DOCTEUR – FOREST – DE – FAYE – SON – RECONNAISSANT – J.P. RUSSELL – BELLE – ISLE – 1905 –

$600,000 – 800,000
Sold for $756,400 (inc. BP) in Auction 52 - 29 November 2017, Melbourne

Claude Pelissié, France
Sotheby Parke-Bernet, Paris (label attached verso)
Private collection, Melbourne
Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne
Private collection, Sydney, acquired from the above in 1997


Belle Île: Monet, Russell & Matisse in Brittany, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 24 November 2001 – 3 February 2002 then touring: Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 14 February – 21 April 2002, cat. 39B


Prunster, U., et. al, Belle Île: Monet, Russell & Matisse in Brittany, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2001, cat.39B, p. 127

Catalogue text

Russell- van Gogh.jpg

Vincent van Gogh, 1886
oil on canvas
60.1 x 45.6 cm
courtesy of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
(Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

John Peter Russell holds a rare place in Australian art history for his close association with avant-garde circles in 1880s Paris and his firsthand acquaintance with some of the masters of European Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. As a student at Fernand Cormon’s atelier in Paris in the mid-1880s, Russell worked alongside Émile Bernard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and later, Vincent van Gogh, with whom he established an enduring friendship.1 On a summer break from Paris in 1886, Russell spent several months on Belle-Île, one of a group of small islands off the coast of Brittany. It was here that he met and befriended Claude Monet who he saw working en plein air and, recognising his painting style, famously introduced himself by asking if he was indeed ‘the Prince of the Impressionists’. Inevitably flattered, Monet, who was eighteen years Russell’s senior, took a liking to the young Australian and dined with him and his beautiful wife-to-be, Marianna, enjoying their hospitality and company during his stay on the island.

Uncharacteristically, Monet allowed Russell to watch him work and on occasion, to paint alongside him, experiences that provided the younger artist with an extraordinary insight into the techniques and working method of one of the founders of the Impressionist movement. The influence on Russell was significant and the paintings he made in Italy and Sicily only a few months later show him working in a new style, using a high-keyed palette (from which black had been banished entirely) and his compositions made up of strokes of pure colour.2 In addition to showing him how to use colour as a means of expressing a personal response to the subject, Monet’s example also highlighted for Russell the importance of working directly from nature.3

Belle-Île is part of the accurately named La Côte Sauvage, buffeted by almost constant westerly winds blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean. With a rugged landscape as yet untouched by tourism and the inevitable accompanying development, it offered little in the way of obvious picturesque views but ‘instead … the challenge of a raw confrontation with nature for which there was no tradition of painterly representation’.4 Russell and Monet were both liberated and excited by the task of representing ‘the solid yet fantastical in the form of the rock formations on the western coastline, with the fluid and the mercurial – the sea, waves and spray … being forced beyond … previous boundaries into unknown territory.’5 During his visit, Monet wrote to fellow artist Gustave Caillebotte, ‘I am in a superbly wild country, a heap of terrible rocks and an improbable sea of colours’.6 In July 1888, Russell wrote to van Gogh, ‘I am a painter of nature, of nature’s moods, of sunlight and (the) changing temper of the sea’. 7 Similarly, Henri Matisse, who visited Belle-Île in 1895 and met Russell there the following year said simply, ‘Here it is wildness in all its beauty and emptiness’.8

MMT 158874.jpg

(1840 – 1926)
Portrait de Poly, pêcheur a Belle-Ile, 1886
oil on canvas
74.0 x 53.0 cm
courtesy of Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris,
France and Bridgeman Images

Russell’s inherited wealth afforded him freedoms that others did not have and inspired by the possibilities of Belle-Île for both his art and his life. In 1887 he bought land overlooking the inlet of Goulphar where he built a well-appointed home for himself and his family (which grew to include six children), living there permanently until 1909. He came to know the geography of Belle-Île intimately and as an accomplished yachtsman, often sailed around the island experiencing the physical power and changing moods of the surrounding sea. While La Pointe de Morestil par mer calme (Calm sea at Morestil Point), 1901 (Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane) describes tranquil waters, Rough sea, Belle-Île, 1900 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), captures the opposite extreme in a luminous example of Russell’s painterly dynamism. Russell scholar Ann Galbally has described the ‘intensity of vision’ that characterises the works made on Belle-Île, where his focus on a limited range of subjects – the sea, the rocks, rugged coastline and figure studies – encouraged the development of experimental brushstrokes that captured the changing light and atmospheric conditions of the environment, as well as his committed pursuit of pure colour.9

Russell also established relationships with island locals and in Fisherman, Belle-Île (Pêcheur Belle- Île), 1905, he depicts Hippolyte Guillaume, or Père Polyte as he was more often known. Polyte could turn his hand to various tasks and during Monet’s visit in 1886, Russell arranged for him to work as the older artist’s porter, carrying his easel, canvases and other painting equipment to various locations around the island. He was also a popular artist’s model and on one occasion when the weather was too wild to work outside, he sat for Monet who described him as ‘an old sailor, a real type, very amusing and very obliging.’10 The resulting Portrait of Poly, 1886 is now held in the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris.

Russell employed Polyte as a gardener and handyman throughout the years he lived on Belle-Île and the two men must have developed an easy friendship, which is reflected in the various paintings in which the fisherman appears. Described as a ‘rustic, working-class old-salt’, Polyte also typified the kind of peasant subject in which Russell and van Gogh were interested, a man (or woman) intimately connected and attuned to the natural environment through their labours and representative of a way of life that was rapidly being lost in the wake of industrialisation. In Mon ami ‘Polite, 1900 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney), Russell depicts him walking along a cliff carrying a basket and axe, his weathered face framed by a hat and long white beard. The colours of his clothing merge with those of the surrounding sky and sea, and the entire scene is painted with uniformly expressive linear brushwork. The natural connection that exists between the landscape and Polyte is more prominent in Fisherman, Belle-Île (Pêcheur Belle- Île), where he is shown sitting on the top of a cliff, fishing in sheltered waters below. Rather than engaging directly with the viewer, Polyte appears focused on the task at hand, and once again, his clothing is painted in colours that mirror the blues and white of the sea and the sky. The image Russell presents us with in this painting is one of man at home in his surroundings, contemplative, peaceful and calm, a relationship that is perhaps just as pertinent to the artist himself as to his subject.


Mon ami 'Polite, 1900
oil on canvas
52.5 x 63.5 cm
courtesy of Art Gallery of
New South Wales, Sydney

1. Although Russell did not see van Gogh again after he departed for Arles in the south of France in early 1888, their friendship continued via an extensive correspondence. See Galbally, A., A Remarkable Friendship: Vincent van Gogh and John Peter Russell, The Miegunyah Press, Carlton, 2008
2. Taylor, E., ‘John Russell and friends: Roberts, Monet, van Gogh, Matisse, Rodin’, Australian Impressionists in France, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2013, p. 60
3. Prunster, U., ‘Painting Belle-Île’, in Prunster, U., et al., Belle-Île: Monet, Russell and Matisse, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2001, p. 31
4. Galbally, A., ‘Mer Sauvage’, in Prunster, U., ibid., p. 14
5. op. cit., p. 13
6. Prunster, U., op. cit., p. 19
7. ibid., p. 29
8. ibid.
9. Galbally, A., op cit., p. 15
10. Galbally, A., 2008, op. cit., p. 128