fig. 1 
John Peter Russell

John Peter Russell’s Dr Will Maloney, 1887, came into the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1943 (fig. 1). An intriguing work – painted in Paris by a Sydney-born artist and depicting the man who would become the first Member for Melbourne in the as-yet-undreamt-of Commonwealth Parliament – it has long defied curatorial classification, sometimes being hung with the late-nineteenth-century Australian artists, sometimes with the French Impressionists. 

Yet this small but arresting canvas deserves attention for what it reveals about Russell’s practice in the mid-1880s. The premise of this investigation has been to test how far Russell’s choice and use of pigments can be related to his descriptions of his working methods, and in particular to the account of his palette that he gave his friend and fellow artist Tom Roberts in the same year that the Maloney portrait was painted. We found that in general terms the portrait shows Russell using ‘new’ pigments, but without a real understanding of their nature. Dr Will Maloney is an interesting work not so much because it represents a successful translation of artist’s intention into product, but rather because it tells a story about disparity between intention and production. 

But to begin we need to set the artist and the work in context. 

Biographical background 

Something of an enigma in the history of Australian painting, John Peter Russell revealed a love of art from an early age.1For the life and work of John Peter Russell, see A. Galbally, The Art of John Peter Russell, Melbourne, 1977. When he began his working life in the 1870s, however, he met his parents’ expectations and trained in the family profession – engineering. In 1879 he finally broke with this path on the death of his father, which left him with a sizeable fortune with which to pursue his own desires. In January 1881 he became an art student at the Slade School in London, though he continued to define himself as an Australian, seeing his future in this country. Evidence of this is his return to Sydney in early 1882. He remained in New South Wales some eighteen months, during which time he participated fully in the Sydney art world. In September 1882 he presented twelve works for inclusion in the third annual exhibition of the Art Society of New South Wales – only to see the entire show go up in flames when the Garden Palace Exhibition Building caught fire on 22 September. However, by the following March he had another seventeen works ready to be shown with the Society at its postponed exhibition. 

While in Australia, Russell painted both oil and watercolour landscapes in the Blue Mountains, the Riverina and the coastal area around Sydney, as well as a large number of portraits. He also saw himself as a patron and in March 1883 his offer of two ten-guinea prizes for ‘the best designs in figure and foliage subjects in black and white’ was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald.2Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 1883. One can find further evidence of his idea of fostering the progress of Australian art – as an expression of nationalism – in the correspondence he had conducted in the pages of the same newspaper in August 1882 regarding the collecting policy of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the teaching practices of the New South Wales Academy of Art.3Russell felt that the time had come to ‘spend a portion of the public money on Australian productions’ and suggested that the display of the Gallery be altered ‘to adopt the plan of European art galleries, in dividing the works of different countries, and [to] place Australian work by itself to form the nucleus of a national collection, which would be extremely interesting to all visitors to the colony, and give them a better idea of our country than they might otherwise obtain’ (John Peter Russell, letter to the editor, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August 1882). His hope for a national collection was a theme he would return to with his artist friends in Europe, especially Vincent van Gogh. Although noting in the Sydney Morning Herald that art in Australia ‘is of very slow growth’, he isolated Conrad Martens and Louis Buvelot as the two Australian painters ‘whose pictures could be seen with immense advantage by students of the present and the future’ and then went on to shoulder some responsibility himself for the future progress of Australian art: ‘[L]et me say that in a few months I propose resuming my work in Paris where my fellow countrymen can rest assured I will do all in my power to forward Australian art and Australian artists and do honour to my country’. 

At this point his painting reflected a fairly typical amalgam of plein air beliefs and strategies – ‘I consider the work of any artist who went to nature courageously and honestly, worth seeing’.4Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August 1882. At the same time he had a penchant for the kind of portraiture in which his master at the Slade, Alphonse Legros (1837–1911), specialised: the quick life-sized study from life, the ébauche in red and brown tones – worked up in terms of tonal contrasts and lit by a raking left–right light source. 

It was Russell’s portraits in particular that aroused the interest of the Sydney Morning Herald, which in March 1883 commented on their vigour and ‘unfinished’ quality.5Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 1883: ‘J. P. Russell exhibits more pictures than any other member of the Society [Art Society of New South Wales], and some of his pictures are really admirable. His portraits are especially good, for although they are not thoroughly finished, his handling is vigorous and telling, and he has the gift, which only belongs to a man who has a true eye, and an intuitive knowledge of character, of reproducing nearly always the characteristic expression of his subjects’. Indeed, the newspaper reported, several of the artist’s pictures in the 1883 exhibition were described in the exhibition catalogue as ‘portrait sketches’, among them no. 266, ‘Time study’ (Two hours), c.1883, a work whose title points to a direct link between Russell’s practice and the rapid ébauches Legros painted as demonstrations in front of his students. Legros’s methods were undoubtedly the basis for Russell’s portrait practice at this time – first the quick but sure sketch with the brush on a nondescript background, then the gradual building up of planes in red and brown tones, and then a final highlighting with impasto, again with a rapid but sure brushstroke. 

This approach suited Russell’s temperament, which was impatient and mercurial; he was interested in quick results and grew bored with sustained, painstaking effort. The pattern of his life in the 1880s was similar: he was always on the move to different painting grounds and sites, seeking different masters, trying different methods – a restless search that only subsides when he becomes a committed family man in the 1890s. 

Russell was back in London for the summer of 1883, part of which he spent on a walking tour of Spain with his brother Percy, Tom Roberts and Dr William Maloney. Although he had announced in the Sydney press that he was going to Paris to resume his training, he did not make the transition until early 1885 when he worked at both Julian’s and Cormon’s ateliers, eventually giving his loyalty entirely to Cormon. 

During his student years Russell strongly identified with other Australians abroad, especially Tom Roberts (1856–1931) and Bertram Mackennal (1863–1931). Russell and Roberts were close in age, and Russell respected Roberts’s work. Although disappointed when his friend made the sudden decision to return to Melbourne in early 1885 rather than join him for further study in Paris, Russell’s farewell remarks were typically generous and encouraging: ‘Go in prophet style and tackle our stuff for love. Think more than you paint. So much for my opinion’.6John Peter Russell, letter to Tom Roberts, February/March 1885, Tom Roberts Papers, A 2480, vol. 3, Miscellaneous, letter V, Mitchell Library, Sydney (see Galbally, pp. 89–90). The selections from Russell’s letters used in this article faithfully record the artist’s original spelling and punctuation. 

For the two years he was a student in Paris, Russell attempted to keep Roberts (and through him other Australian artists) in touch with developments there, and in particular with his own progress. Although letters were useful, however, artists needed to see things for themselves, and in 1887, when he learnt that Dr Maloney was returning to Melbourne, Russell decided to paint his friend’s portrait and give it to him to take home to Australia as a talisman: a work that would express all the new thinking, and the changes in artistic practice, that had had an impact on Russell’s art in the period he and Roberts had been apart. 

Dr Maloney and his portrait 

Born in Melbourne in 1854 and widely believed to be an illegitimate son of wealthy pastoralist W. J. T. ‘Big’ Clarke, William Maloney was educated at the West Melbourne primary school and at Scotch College before he and his mother took up a selection at Longwarry, Gippsland, in south-eastern Victoria. After a few years he returned to Melbourne, matriculated at night school and then left for London, where he enrolled as a medical student at St Mary’s Hospital in 1880. He graduated as a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries (LSA) and Member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1885. 

While in London, Maloney was profoundly affected by the poverty he observed, and began to develop ideas for alleviating it that were along the lines of contemporary international socialism. Some time after his return to Melbourne he decided that a political career was the way to answer the clamourings of his social conscience, and in 1889 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for West Melbourne. His record 51-year stint as a politician included being elected Melbourne’s first Member of the House of Representatives in the first Commonwealth Parliament.7Maloney maintained a reform program campaigning for women’s suffrage, old-age and invalid pensions, and republicanism. In 1889 he introduced into the Victorian Parliament what was reputedly the first bill in the British Empire for women’s suffrage (suffrage was granted by the Parliament only in 1908). For Maloney’s life, see B. Nairn & G. Serle (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 10, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 389–90. 

Maloney seems to have initially met Russell in London, probably through Tom Roberts. After the trip to Spain in 1883, he visited Russell more than once in Paris, his portrait being painted on his last visit there in July 1887. When he returned to Australia, he took the painting with him.8The portrait remained with Maloney until his death in 1940, when it passed to his secretary, Miss A. Hardenack. Miss Hardenack sold it to the National Gallery of Victoria in 1943. 

Russell followed up with a letter to Roberts in December 1887, asking him if he had yet seen Maloney (and, by implication, his portrait).9John Peter Russell, letter to Tom Roberts, 26 December 1887, Tom Roberts Papers, letter VII (see Galbally, pp. 91–2). It is in this letter that he makes perhaps the most important artistic statement we have from him, as he gives a clear account of the palette he has been using and discusses new techniques. Above all, the letter reveals, it is the subject of colour – his handling of it, and its purity – that dominates his thinking and his practice at this point. 

John Peter Russell always placed a high value on friendship with other artists. During the 1880s, this personal ideal was also an artistic one. Art students quartered in Paris and summering at the various painting ‘camps’ outside Paris, and further afield in Brittany and Normandy, considered artistic friendship as fundamental to their new ethos of communal practice. Artistic fellowship became during these years a real substitute for the traditional master–student relationship of the atelier, particularly among those who undertook a prolonged artistic studentship – and seven years was not unusual for this generation. 

It is not by chance that it is the ‘friendship’ portrait that best charts Russell’s progress to artistic maturity. In nineteenth-century and earlier academic practice this kind of portrait was considered an expression of true artistic creativity – even of creative genius. In academic practice, the friendship portrait was closely linked to the académie, the life-sized study from life that was executed against a plain background and usually undertaken to demonstrate the student’s proficiency at life work. 

The idea of friendship is central to Russell’s 1886 Portrait of Vincent van Gogh (Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam) (fig. 2). Van Gogh had been a fellow student at Cormon’s, and the two artists had worked together away from the atelier, making still-life studies. Van Gogh had also stimulated Russell’s interest in Japanese prints. The notion of friendship is explicit in Russell’s inscriptions on the portrait of his fellow artist: Vincent Pictor at the top left in red above the word AMITIE, with the signature J. P. RUSSELL. PARIS. 1886 on the other side.10These inscriptions are now no longer visible to the naked eye, as they were twenty years ago. The portrait shows not just the face but also the head and shoulders, with the addition of the right hand holding a pencil – the emblem of van Gogh’s calling. 

Russell has added a new drama to his own earlier formats by turning his sitter’s head to give a three-quarter view in which the subject looks out across his shoulder at the viewer. The traditional académie palette of browns, reds and fleshtones is used, against a brown background. But the lighting has become a much stronger aesthetic element, falling across the planes of the subject’s face and across the hand holding the pencil, while completely missing the shoulder. This kind of illumination, combined with the deliberate effect of rapid brushwork as in an ébauche, suggests that the portrait is to be seen as a study in creative intensity – on the part of artist as well as sitter. 

That same year, 1886, Russell painted his own portrait, a small oil study now in the Musée Rodin, Paris.11Autoportrait, 1886, oil on canvas, 20.6 x 20.1 cm, Musée Rodin, Paris (Galbally, no. 45, pl. xiv). Once again we have a three-quarter view set against a nondescript background: here only a wooden dado is discernible. The forms have been quickly worked, with the brushwork making an important aesthetic statement by building up planes and suggesting drama. Russell has dressed himself rather unconventionally, in a white coat with the hint of a red tie or cravat at the neck. He looks out at the viewer in a challenging but not especially confident manner. 

A year later the format is relaxed much further and new elements come into play in the more confident study of Dr Maloney. Now the subject has been more deliberately posed: he is shown seated with his arms crossed, leaning on the back of a chair and gazing quizzically out at the viewer. The raking light that illuminates him does not fall in the traditional manner from left to right but seems to descend from above, causing blue shadows to form on the very informal pink and white shirt that Maloney is wearing (fig. 3). Behind him Russell has placed a wall-hanging with Japanese characters – a sign of the important new aesthetic influence of japonisme, in which Russell, like van Gogh, was by now passionately interested. The nature of the relationship between sitter and artist, together with their professions, is signalled by Russell’s inscription, indicating that this is indeed a friendship portrait: across the bottom of the work he has written AMITIE / WILL MALONEY MEDICUS JULY 1887. / J. P. RUSSELL PICTOR PARIS

Gone completely from this work is the old red-brown palette, to be replaced with a new ‘impressionist’ palette, which Russell would describe to Roberts in his letter of December 1887: ‘Cad[mium] Deep, Cad[mium] pale, Vermilion  Chinese White, Garance Fonce[e], Cobalt Ultramarine  Vert emeraud[e] [emerald green], Paolo Veronese [emerald green and viridian]’.12Russell letter, 26 December 1887. 

The catalyst for change seems to have been the influence of artist friends. Two painters in particular seem to have impressed Russell in the mid-1880s – van Gogh and Claude Monet. Van Gogh’s gradual awakening to the possibilities of colour, in the two years he was in Paris, parallels that of his Australian friend. But the Dutchman’s palette, as described in March or April 1888, was more extensive and more complicated than that of Russell at this time. In an order that his brother Theo was to give to his supplier, van Gogh wrote that he required the following colours: 

20 Flake white, big tubes / 10 ditto zinc white / 15 Malachite green, double tubes / 10 Chrome yellow, citron ditto / 10 Chrome yellow (No. two) double tubes / 3 Vermilion ditto / 3 Chrome yellow ‘No. three’ ditto / 6 Geranium lake, small tubes / 12 Crimson lake [small tubes] / 2 Carmine [small tubes] … / 4 Prussian blue, small tubes / 4 Cinnabar green, very light, small tubes / 2 Orange lead [small tubes] / 6 Emerald green [small tubes].13Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo van Gogh, March/April 1888, in The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, vol. 2, trans. J. van Gogh-Bonger & C. de Dood, London,.1958, pp. 542–3, no. 475. 

He worried, all the same, in a letter written a few days later, that ‘[a]ll the colors that the Impressionists have brought into fashion are unstable’.14Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo van Gogh, March/April 1888, in The Complete Letters, vol. 2, p. 544, no. 476. 

Monet, by contrast, used a much smaller and simpler palette. Russell first met the French painter on the Breton island of Belle Ile in the autumn of 1886 and was permitted to watch him work, Monet calling him in a letter to his companion Alice Hoschedé ‘a charming American’.15Claude Monet, letter to Alice Hoschedé, 20 September 1886, collection M. Daniel Wildenstein, Paris. Monet’s palette in his Bathers at La Grenouillère of 1869 (National Gallery, London), as documented by Roy, consisted of vermilion, Prussian blue, cobalt blue, chrome yellow, emerald green, viridian, ‘chrome green’, cobalt violet and lead white.16A. Roy, ‘Monet and the Nineteenth Century Palette’, National Gallery Technical Bulletin, vol. 5, 1981, pp. 22–3. Although this palette predates the Melbourne portrait by almost twenty years, Monet used the same colours in his Lavacourt under snow (National Gallery, London) of 1879, a work analysed by Bomford et al. in Art in the Making.17D. Bomford, J. Kirby, J. Leighton & A. Roy, Art in the Making: Impressionism (exh. cat.), National Gallery, London, 1990, cat. no. 13, pl. 188. Clearly he was not inclined to vary his palette too much. 

Roy describes the artist’s 1869 palette as a ‘useful paradigm of the nineteenth century palette, in which most of the pigments chosen represent the relatively recent introductions of the nineteenth century colourmaker’.18Roy, p. 22. 

Although the palette in Dr Will Maloney is extremely close to that used by Monet in both of the works discussed above, Russell and others had misgivings about the stability of its pigments. What was not recognised, however, was that it may not have been the pigments themselves that were the problem, but rather the ways in which they were applied and the ways in which they interacted. 

In the letter to Roberts of December 1887, Russell detailed a number of his concerns: 

I have been for the past two years been [sic] chasing color, been floored again and again. Do you remember Millais’ ‘Yeoman of the Guard’. Free it from a little grease & that is my ideal of technique. Pure or as nearly pure as possible. Colors draped loosely one over tother – cobwebs. Done in a larger way perhaps than Millais to manage big canvases (decorative) To avoid that smudge that spoils most French painting and renders German stuff damnable. No vehicle color only on absorbed canvas or better on stiff canvas prepared only with glue. Simple color but strong keep pure as long as possible 

*Cad[mium] Deep, Cad[mium] pale, Vermilion  Chinese White, Garance Fonce[e], Cobalt 

*Ultramarine  *Vert emeraud[e] [emerald green], Paolo Veronese [emerald green and viridian] 

* only occasionally 

I find the six[-]color palette admirable & almost all one wants 6 colours 3 supplements Difficult to get dirt or black. 

 

Tis rather expensive in cobalt though. However I am now making my own colors nights better than I buy and saving of 60%. Try it! 

 

I find the raw canvas produces agreeable results. It soaks up much color & there is no chance for dexterous brush handling. Could this last?19Russell letter, 26 December 1887. 

Considered together, this letter and the Melbourne portrait provide a very useful insight into Russell and his work. The question remains, however, as to whether Tom Roberts ever actually saw the portrait. We believe there is evidence to support the view that he did. 

Upon returning to Australia, Dr Maloney left Melbourne immediately to take up a medical post on a Western Australian railway construction project, but this was a short-lived venture and he soon returned to Melbourne to live. He seems to have kept in touch with Roberts for a time and is known to have purchased one of the ‘9 by 5’ panels from the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition of 1889 in which Roberts was a key participant. It would seem highly likely that he would have shown Roberts his example of their mutual friend Russell’s latest work from Paris. 

There is certainly evidence that Roberts was interested in the new turn his friend’s art was taking. He passed on Russell’s letter discussing his experiments to fellow painter Arthur Streeton to read, and in early 1891 received this comment back: 

Many thanks for Russels [sic] letter Tis very interesting. He seems to love the open air very much & therefore must be a fine chap (have only glanced quickly through the letter at present). But he does seem to me to bother too much about the ways and means – really theres [sic] not enough time to do that. I should think twould take a man off his inspiration or idea. For me my work may perish, but must risk that so as to go on on.20Arthur Streeton, letter to Tom Roberts, 1891, in Letters from Smike: The Letters of Arthur Streeton, eds A. Galbally &. A. Gray, Melbourne, 1989, p. 30. 

But the most convincing evidence that Roberts actually studied the Melbourne portrait lies not in a written source but in a painted one. Roberts began work on his Shearing the rams (National Gallery of Victoria) in the spring of 1888 and completed it in May 1890.21See H. Topliss, Tom Roberts 1856–1931: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, Melbourne, 1985, no. 149; vol. 2, pl. 70. At what point he decided to clothe the leading shearer in a pink and white shirt identical to the one Maloney is wearing in the Russell portrait is not known, but the fact that the bent back of this shearer is the focus of the picture as well as carrying the highest tonal point in the whole composition is surely something of a tribute from one artist to another, though couched in suitably cryptic form. 

Technical aspects of the portrait 

 

The support 

The theory that the portrait of Dr Maloney was given special attention by Russell in anticipation of its voyage to and subsequent presentation in Australia is supported by evidence of the extreme care that was taken in its preparation: the canvas has been lined onto another canvas by means of meticulously spaced upholsterer’s tacks. It was common nineteenth-century practice to line works that were going to travel, in order to protect them during long sea voyages. 

The painting’s heavily applied ground suggests that the canvas may have been used initially to start another work. However, X-ray has failed to penetrate this lead white coat. It is not clear why Russell would have wanted to recycle a canvas, but even if he in fact did not, it is certain that the canvas he used had been stretched at an earlier date.22For Russell’s use of canvases, see P. Dredge, ‘John Russell: A Study of His Impressionist Technique’, in The Articulate Surface, eds S.-A. Wallace, J. Macnaughtan & J. Parvey, Canberra, 1996, pp. 265–77. Even if time was of the essence it would have been just as quick for him to stretch and prime up a new canvas, so this choice of a canvas that had been prepared some time before may indicate an interest in using as stable a support as possible – while lining it provided extra protection. 

Whatever the history of the canvas, the careful preparation of canvas and stretcher supports the theory that this work had an important place in Russell’s scheme and was painted with the intention that it would travel with Maloney to Australia. 

Paint application 

The practice of light and loose paint application (‘cobwebs’) is mentioned in various nineteenth-century sources, usually in discussions about brushwork.23See L. A. Carlyle, A Critical Analysis of Artists’ Handbooks, Manuals and Treatises on Oil Painting Published in Britain between 1800–1900 with Reference to Selected Eighteenth Century Sources, PhD thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1991, vol. 1, p. 308: ‘[A] method for creating a textured surface was to drag a brush only lightly loaded with paint across the top of the dried paint surface. This was called, “Dry-touching or Dragging” and was described by several sources. [J. S.] Templeton warned, “Certain unpleasant appearances, technically called mealiness and spottiness, are the consequences of overdoing this portion of the work the progressive effect of which must therefore be watched with jealous deliberation”’. Russell’s concerns were not with the creation of a textured surface, but with the retention of pure colour values in the manner of the Impressionists. However, as with several of the devices he used, he appropriated for his impressionist aesthetic a technique that had been developed by earlier artists, in this case artists more concerned with realism.24Exhortations to limit the amount of ‘vehicle’ occur in artists’ handbooks from much earlier than the 1880s (Carlyle, vol. 1, p. 309: ‘[A]ccording to [John] Burnet, the highlights of clouds “… ought to be done with little vehicle, as the best mode of giving solidity and brightness to these parts of the picture.” … [Alfred] Clint (1855) stated “the less vehicle used the better”’. The practice of using minimal oil or blotting-up medium with one’s colours, so as to increase the pigment ratio, was not a new, or singularly Impressionist, idea. 

In Dr Will Maloney, Russell has not managed to keep his colours pure (fig. 4) – although the intention to do so can be ascertained from the fact that in applying his pigments he picked out pure colour on his brush. Despite the fact that he neither mixed his colours on the palette nor mixed them with lead white (which could cause what he called ‘greying of colour’), in general the colours in the work appear to have ‘sunk’ – to have lost their individual purity in the same way as the colours in the Portrait of Vincent van Gogh of 1886. The reason for this would appear to be the artist’s tendency to rework the paint surface using a wet-in-wet method – mixing colours on the canvas rather than leaving them to be mixed by the eye. This heavy working, when considered against the words in Russell’s letter to Roberts – ‘Colors draped loosely one over tother’ – may indicate an intense and overriding preoccupation with ‘getting the image right’, even at the expense of technical concerns. 

It is also important to note that purity of colour is as much the result of the uninterrupted passage of light through the paint layers as it is of unmixed pigment. Russell may have understood this principle intellectually when he was executing Dr Will Maloney, but the paint layers of the Melbourne picture are muddied by working, the heavy paint application affecting the ability of light to refract colour clearly, and giving an unclear surface tone — even in areas where different pigments have not been ‘mixed on the canvas. In order to achieve ‘pure colour’ in his later works, Russell learnt to avoid reworking the surface in this way – and instead to allow light to be freely refracted from colour to colour. 

The reworked and heavily worked areas of the portrait contrast with other sections of the canvas where Russell has intentionally blurred the boundaries of his forms (fig. 5), such as along the borders of the sleeves. In working in this way, he is intent not on rendering forms in a realistic manner but on emphasising chromatic tensions, for example in his use of garance foncée (a deep, transparent red) juxtapositioned with emerald green.25The garance foncée outline along Dr Maloney’s sleeves indicates Russell’s need at times to define the shape before he can confidently break down its edges. In other areas, the breaking down of forms seems less deliberate. Despite Russell’s awareness of the need to ‘avoid that smudge’ (Russell letter, 26 December 1887), the areas around the collar and the sitter’s left shoulder have been painted and then wiped out with turpentine and repainted. This has meant a lack of definition that appears to be the result of process not intention. This technique of blurring boundaries was developed from Russell’s training at the Slade, where it was employed as a device to break the surface, adding tension to the painted forms while relying on the play of light on colour to provide dimensionality. From 1887 Russell used both broken colour and chromatic juxtapositioning, rather than brushwork alone, to create these kinds of visual effects, and to move the viewer from a realistic to a more aesthetically complex reading of his work. 

In Dr Will Maloney, the brushwork has the overall effect of breaking down our ability to read perspective easily and of discouraging our gaze from settling. One of the results of this is to draw our attention to the face and to the very direct manner in which the sitter looks out at the viewer (fig. 6). A similar use of brushwork can be seen in Peonies and head of woman, 1887 (Joseph Brown Collection, Melbourne), and Paysannes à Monte Cassino, 1886 (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra). Paysannes à Monte Cassino contains another device that Russell employed to break down realistic readings of his images – the brushing of a thick, heavy, although broken, layer of luminescence over the sky. This device was employed in the artist’s landscapes after 1887, with the overpaint being applied in the studio after a work had been developed through a more or less realistic rendition. In later pictures, therefore, as well as in Dr Will Maloney, Russell retains a working method that involves painting to a point of realistic depiction, and then, once this baseline has been established, employing devices to pull the work back from realism and to push forward other values such as colour and light. 

Palette 

When the Melbourne portrait is placed under bright light the original values of its colours become more obvious, with deeper hues and more strongly opposing values being revealed. If Russell’s method of application indicates that ‘Between the conception / And the creation … Falls the Shadow’,26T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, in T. S. Eliot, Selected Poems, London, 1961, p. 80. an analysis of his choice of pigments in the portrait shows that they coincide beautifully with the list he provides to Roberts in December 1887. In addition, the palette locates Russell’s interest in and awareness of contemporaries who were producing some of the most interesting art of the time. As we have already noted, and as is pointed out in the technical notes accompanying the results of an analysis of the portrait, Russell’s palette is particularly close to that of Monet in his Lavacourt under snow of 1879.27L. Mathieson, ‘Analytical Report: John Peter Russell – Portrait of Dr Maloney, Scientific Analysis’, August 1995, p. 8 (publication forthcoming): ‘There are examples of six[-]colour palettes in the work of Pissarro and Monet. Monet, Lavacourt under snow, 1879, is of interest as the palette is the same as that of Russell’. See also Bomford et al., p. 59. 

Three cross-section samples from the Melbourne portrait were taken at the National Gallery of Victoria in order to determine something about the painting’s pigment range.28The analysis indicated that lead white, cobalt blue, French ultramarine, emerald green, viridian, vermilion, madder lake and cadmium yellow – that is to say, colours identical to those listed in the letter of December 1887 – were all used in Dr Will Maloney. 

While examination of these samples revealed that the pigments are within the range advocated by Russell in December 1887 (figs 7a & 7b), there is a vast difference in appearance between works executed within the same pigment range but in which different methods of application have been used. In order to keep colours pure it is necessary, as we have seen, to avoid mixing them on the palette, and to apply fresh paint only to layers that are already dry. A wet-on-wet or wet-in-wet application will produce different tones, and even different colours, from a wet-on-dry application. 

In Dr Will Maloney the colours appear not only sunken but also dark, as is the case with the Portrait of Vincent van Gogh. Ironically, in seeking to keep his colours ‘pure’ by actively avoiding driers such as lead white and by working with the pigments he did, Russell appears to have exacerbated the problem of darkening in these earlier French works. In the absence of lead white driers, each layer of paint would be wetter longer, its protective skin forming more slowly; this would then give each layer more chance to sink into the layer below as it dried. The heavy working of the surface – wet-in-wet – added to the difficulties. In his choice of garance foncée for much of his highlight work, moreover, Russell chose a pigment that is almost transparent. In applying it wet-on-wet, he lost this particular quality. In later Belle Ile works the paint is applied wet-on-dry, indicating that Russell learnt to deal with this problem. 

Another factor contributing to the darkening of Russell’s pictures was his use of pigments with little additional oil to lock them up,29See note 24 above. and the lack of varnish on his paintings could also exacerbate darkening. Some of the pigments he used were also extremely susceptible to chemical alterations, and needed to be applied carefully.30For example, the bright blue-green pigment paolo veronese, which is comprised of emerald green and viridian, was found in all three samples. This pigment consists of copper acetoarsenite, and is blackened by sulphurous air and sulphur-bearing pigments. In the Melbourne portrait, there are three sulphur-bearing pigments which, if not well prepared, could contain free sulphur. They are: vermilion (mercuric sulphide), French ultramarine (a compound of sodium, silicon, aluminium, sulphur and oxygen) and cadmium yellow (cadmium sulphide). 

We see, therefore, that while the artist’s choice of pigments was not particularly problematic, difficulties arise with his technique – dismissing some traditional practices could lead to unexpected problems. It seems safe to assume that Russell was not knowledgeable enough about the technical properties of his materials for him to properly execute the aims stated in the letter to Roberts. 

Conclusion 

While there can be no doubt that John Peter Russell was interested in issues of permanency and purity of colour at the time he painted Dr Will Maloney, there is convincing evidence to suggest that he did not understand enough about his materials to ensure that theory and practice were in accord. Although he expressed concern about the tendency of lead white to darken, and insisted on the use of colour that was ‘pure as long as possible’, he does not appear (at least in the present work) to have understood reactions between materials, and the consequences of certain of his own techniques. What he seems to have been lacking in the mid-1880s was sufficient experience in putting theory into practice. This situation would gradually change, however,31John Peter Russell, letter to Tom Roberts, ?1890, Tom Roberts Papers, letter VIII (see Galbally pp. 92–3). and by 1890, although he was still chasing an ideal, he had made enough paintings to understand a bit more of the complexities of ‘simple’ colour.32Russell letter, ?1890. 

Whatever the technical challenges he faced, there can be no denying that Russell had a definite aesthetic and that it was formed as a result of his experiences and friendships in Paris. Yet he also integrated into his work much of the theory he had learnt in the pre-Paris years (particularly with respect to brushwork and ideas about pure colour), and was always eager to incorporate new information if he felt this would assist his ends. He sought constantly to improve his technical knowledge, but in the final analysis it was the success or failure of his works that led him to modify his techniques in order to achieve his aims. Continually striving for perfection, it was Russell who, of all the Australian artists of his generation, exhibited the most sustained interest in technical issues and experiments. 

Ann Galbally, Department of Fine Arts, University of Melbourne (in 1997).

Robyn Sloggett, Ian Potter Conservation Centre, University of Melbourne (in 1997). 

 

Acknowledgements 

The authors would like to thank John Payne and Lois Mathieson for their invaluable assistance with the examination of the Maloney portrait and with the preparation of this paper. 

 

Notes

1     For the life and work of John Peter Russell, see A. Galbally, The Art of John Peter Russell, Melbourne, 1977. 

2     Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 1883. 

3     Russell felt that the time had come to ‘spend a portion of the public money on Australian productions’ and suggested that the display of the Gallery be altered ‘to adopt the plan of European art galleries, in dividing the works of different countries, and [to] place Australian work by itself to form the nucleus of a national collection, which would be extremely interesting to all visitors to the colony, and give them a better idea of our country than they might otherwise obtain’ (John Peter Russell, letter to the editor, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August 1882). His hope for a national collection was a theme he would return to with his artist friends in Europe, especially Vincent van Gogh. Although noting in the Sydney Morning Herald that art in Australia ‘is of very slow growth’, he isolated Conrad Martens and Louis Buvelot as the two Australian painters ‘whose pictures could be seen with immense advantage by students of the present and the future’ and then went on to shoulder some responsibility himself for the future progress of Australian art: ‘[L]et me say that in a few months I propose resuming my work in Paris where my fellow countrymen can rest assured I will do all in my power to forward Australian art and Australian artists and do honour to my country’. 

4     Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August 1882. 

5     Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 1883: ‘J. P. Russell exhibits more pictures than any other member of the Society [Art Society of New South Wales], and some of his pictures are really admirable. His portraits are especially good, for although they are not thoroughly finished, his handling is vigorous and telling, and he has the gift, which only belongs to a man who has a true eye, and an intuitive knowledge of character, of reproducing nearly always the characteristic expression of his subjects’. 

6     John Peter Russell, letter to Tom Roberts, February/March 1885, Tom Roberts Papers, A 2480, vol. 3, Miscellaneous, letter V, Mitchell Library, Sydney (see Galbally, pp. 89–90). The selections from Russell’s letters used in this article faithfully record the artist’s original spelling and punctuation. 

7     Maloney maintained a reform program campaigning for women’s suffrage, old-age and invalid pensions, and republicanism. In 1889 he introduced into the Victorian Parliament what was reputedly the first bill in the British Empire for women’s suffrage (suffrage was granted by the Parliament only in 1908). For Maloney’s life, see B. Nairn & G. Serle (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 10, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 389–90. 

8     The portrait remained with Maloney until his death in 1940, when it passed to his secretary, Miss A. Hardenack. Miss Hardenack sold it to the National Gallery of Victoria in 1943. 

9     John Peter Russell, letter to Tom Roberts, 26 December 1887, Tom Roberts Papers, letter VII (see Galbally, pp. 91–2). 

10     These inscriptions are now no longer visible to the naked eye, as they were twenty years ago. 

11     Autoportrait, 1886, oil on canvas, 20.6 x 20.1 cm, Musée Rodin, Paris (Galbally, no. 45, pl. xiv). 

12     Russell letter, 26 December 1887. 

13     Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo van Gogh, March/April 1888, in The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, vol. 2, trans. J. van Gogh-Bonger & C. de Dood, London,.1958, pp. 542–3, no. 475. 

14     Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo van Gogh, March/April 1888, in The Complete Letters, vol. 2, p. 544, no. 476. 

15     Claude Monet, letter to Alice Hoschedé, 20 September 1886, collection M. Daniel Wildenstein, Paris. 

16     A. Roy, ‘Monet and the Nineteenth Century Palette’, National Gallery Technical Bulletin, vol. 5, 1981, pp. 22–3. 

17     D. Bomford, J. Kirby, J. Leighton & A. Roy, Art in the Making: Impressionism (exh. cat.), National Gallery, London, 1990, cat. no. 13, pl. 188. 

18     Roy, p. 22. 

19     Russell letter, 26 December 1887. 

20     Arthur Streeton, letter to Tom Roberts, 1891, in Letters from Smike: The Letters of Arthur Streeton, eds A. Galbally &. A. Gray, Melbourne, 1989, p. 30. 

21     See H. Topliss, Tom Roberts 1856–1931: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, Melbourne, 1985, no. 149; vol. 2, pl. 70. 

22     For Russell’s use of canvases, see P. Dredge, ‘John Russell: A Study of His Impressionist Technique’, in The Articulate Surface, eds S.-A. Wallace, J. Macnaughtan & J. Parvey, Canberra, 1996, pp. 265–77. 

23     See L. A. Carlyle, A Critical Analysis of Artists’ Handbooks, Manuals and Treatises on Oil Painting Published in Britain between 1800–1900 with Reference to Selected Eighteenth Century Sources, PhD thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1991, vol. 1, p. 308: ‘[A] method for creating a textured surface was to drag a brush only lightly loaded with paint across the top of the dried paint surface. This was called, “Dry-touching or Dragging” and was described by several sources. [J. S.] Templeton warned, “Certain unpleasant appearances, technically called mealiness and spottiness, are the consequences of overdoing this portion of the work the progressive effect of which must therefore be watched with jealous deliberation”’. 

24     Exhortations to limit the amount of ‘vehicle’ occur in artists’ handbooks from much earlier than the 1880s (Carlyle, vol. 1, p. 309: ‘[A]ccording to [John] Burnet, the highlights of clouds “… ought to be done with little vehicle, as the best mode of giving solidity and brightness to these parts of the picture.” … [Alfred] Clint (1855) stated “the less vehicle used the better”’. The practice of using minimal oil or blotting-up medium with one’s colours, so as to increase the pigment ratio, was not a new, or singularly Impressionist, idea. 

25     The garance foncée outline along Dr Maloney’s sleeves indicates Russell’s need at times to define the shape before he can confidently break down its edges. In other areas, the breaking down of forms seems less deliberate. Despite Russell’s awareness of the need to ‘avoid that smudge’ (Russell letter, 26 December 1887), the areas around the collar and the sitter’s left shoulder have been painted and then wiped out with turpentine and repainted. This has meant a lack of definition that appears to be the result of process not intention. 

26     T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, in T. S. Eliot, Selected Poems, London, 1961, p. 80. 

27     L. Mathieson, ‘Analytical Report: John Peter Russell – Portrait of Dr Maloney, Scientific Analysis’, August 1995, p. 8 (publication forthcoming): ‘There are examples of six[-]colour palettes in the work of Pissarro and Monet. Monet, Lavacourt under snow, 1879, is of interest as the palette is the same as that of Russell’. See also Bomford et al., p. 59. 

28     The analysis indicated that lead white, cobalt blue, French ultramarine, emerald green, viridian, vermilion, madder lake and cadmium yellow – that is to say, colours identical to those listed in the letter of December 1887 – were all used in Dr Will Maloney.

29     See note 24 above. 

30     For example, the bright blue-green pigment paolo veronese, which is comprised of emerald green and viridian, was found in all three samples. This pigment consists of copper acetoarsenite, and is blackened by sulphurous air and sulphur-bearing pigments. In the Melbourne portrait, there are three sulphur-bearing pigments which, if not well prepared, could contain free sulphur. They are: vermilion (mercuric sulphide), French ultramarine (a compound of sodium, silicon, aluminium, sulphur and oxygen) and cadmium yellow (cadmium sulphide). 

31     John Peter Russell, letter to Tom Roberts, ?1890, Tom Roberts Papers, letter VIII (see Galbally pp. 92–3). 

32     Russell letter, ?1890.