John Russell is widely acknowledged as Australia’s finest and first true Impressionist artist. From 1884-1888, when he lived in Paris, Russell gained first-hand experience of the Impressionist style and met its leader, Claude Monet. Russell mixed in a wide circle of progressive artists and became friends with many of them, including the sculptor Auguste Rodin. These connections and influences ultimately set his work apart from that of his Australian contemporaries such as Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton.
The son of a wealthy engineer, Russell was born in Darlinghurst, Sydney, in 1858. The death of his father in 1879 gave him the financial independence to pursue a career in art and he travelled to London to study at the Slade School of Art from 1881 to 1883. As well as brief return visits to Australia, Russell travelled to Spain in 1883 with Tom Roberts and Will Maloney and visited plein air painting colonies in Cornwall in 1885. Russell moved to Paris and trained at the Atelier Cormon from 1885 to 1887, where he formed a friendship with Vincent van Gogh. In 1886 Russell painted a portrait of Van Gogh, now in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
John Russell’s contact with van Gogh was to prove pivotal to the Australian artist’s gradual assimilation of new subjects and understanding of modern painting techniques. Van Gogh had arrived in Paris in early 1886 and joined the Atelier Cormon in March. Over the course of the next year he became more and more interested in the idea of painting contemporary outdoor scenes using bright, pure colour and the broken brushwork of the Impressionists. He subsequently introduced Russell to popular painting spots along the river Seine.
Ile de la Jatte a Neuilly depicts a small island in the Seine, situated between the two communes of Neuilly-sur-Seine and Levalloise. It was a popular summer bathing and picnicking spot. A keen sailor and oarsman, Russell may have been attracted to the area to participate in regattas. He would also have been aware of its attraction for artists, notably Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Georges Seurat in his pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-86.
The legendary French poet Charles Baudelaire coined the term modernité to describe the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis and the responsibility of artistic expression to capture that experience. Both Van Gogh and Seurat captured that 19th century sentiment in their paintings of the river. Ile de la Jatte a Neuilly shows Russell’s development along the same lines, with its more highly keyed palette, individualised brushstrokes, cropping of the subject and lack of a clear focus. In all probability it was painted in spring 1887, rather than 1889, for by that time Russell had moved permanently to the island of Belle Elle.
Ile de la Jatte a Neuilly is an important early example of Russell’s shift away from more naturalistic painting and a portent of things to come. It was exhibited in Paris and subsequently acquired by a prominent Parisian, Baron Gilbert de Knyff, before eventually making its way to Australia where it was purchased by the Ledger family in 1970.
Ann Galbally, The art of John Peter Russell, Sun Books, Melbourne
Ann Galbally, A remarkable friendship: Vincent van Gogh and John Peter Russell, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2008
Wayne Tunnicliffe, John Russell: Australia’s French Impressionist, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2018