Amitie: Russell and Van Gogh

The legend of John Peter Russell has many attractive aspects, but none more so than his friendship with Vincent Van Gogh. Yet, as with all legends, little is actually documented about their friendship. 

It was first brought to light by Henry Thannhauser, art-historian son of the famous dealer Justin K. Thannhauser, in 1938. In articles published in L’Amour de l’art and the Burlington Magazine he discussed the letters exchanged between the two (three from Van Gogh and a fragment remaining from Russell) and published some of the twelve drawings Van Gogh had sent Russell in 1888. 

But Thannhauser reveals little of the facts of the relationship, even of how they met. Deriving his information from the artist’s daughter Madame Jeanne Jouve, his account, like so many that were to follow, concentrated on his biographical surrounds. 

On the face of it, there was little to bring them together. Van Gogh was unsettled, egocentric and artistically daring: Russell, gregarious and romantic was an artistic conservative. Yet both had had to struggle with an environment hostile to their choice of a career; and both were foreigners in a sophisticated city. 

It would seem that they first met at the atelier of Fernand-Anne Piestre called Cormon in the Boulevard de Clichy. Russell had joined Cormon’s early in 1885 and Emile Bernard recalls seeing Van Gogh at work there as a ‘nouveau’ in the early months of 1886: 

‘Je le revois chez Cormon, l’àpres-midi, alors que l’atelier vide d’élèves lui devenait une sortie de cellule; aussi devant une antique en plâtre il copie les belles formes avec une patience angelique.’ 

Cormon had apparently assigned the Dutchman to the lowest rung of the atelier, the task of copying the modèles de dessin or engravings and plaster casts of the individual parts of the body. But Vincent, who had earlier written to his brother Theo that he wished to come to Paris specifically for this kind of discipline – ‘You speak of clever fellows at that studio of Cormon’s – just because I would damn well like to be one of them that I must insist on devoting a year in Paris to drawing from the nude and from plaster casts.’1Van Gogh, Collected Letters, Thames and Hudson, (London), Vol. II. No. 449. – was characteristically impatient. Bernard continues in his memoir: 

‘Il peut s’emparer de ces contours de ces masses, de ces reliefs. Il se corrige, recommence avec passion, efface, et finalement trone sa feuille de papier a force de la frotter avec une gomme.’2E, Bernard. Van Gogh raconté par lui-même et par ses amis, Pierre Cailler (ed) (Genève) 1947, p. 161. 

Russell on the other hand was a far more docile and accepting student. He had spent three terms under Alphonse Legros at the Slade Art School, University College, London, prior to joining Cormon. There he remained a student for another three years, with periodic breaks for painting tours to Belle Ile and Sicily. In London, Russell’s training had been basically that of a transplanted classicising mid-century atelier grounded firmly in the importance of drawing and tonal modelling. Drawing was to remain of central Importance to Russell during his years as a student in Paris. He wrote proudly of his progress in this direction to his old friend Tom Roberts in Melbourne, telling him that he had won the studio competition for drawing the classical subject ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’. 

Van Gogh, however, having just come from an even more academic situation in Antwerp, did not display the same diligence at Cormon’s. In an undated letter written in the summer of 1886 to the English painter Levens, who had been at the Antwerp Academy with him, he wrote: ‘I have been in Cormon’s studio for three or four months but I did not find that so useful as I had expected it to be.’3Van Gogh, op. cit., Vol II. 

Van Gogh’s quitting the atelier did not break the contact he had with Russell however. He remained living in the Clichy quarter where Russell had his studio (number 15, Impasse Hélène). And it was here that the English art student A. S. Hartrick first saw them together: 

‘I saw him (i.e. Van Gogh) first in Russell’s studio in the Impasse Hélène, Clichy quarter. Russell had just painted that portrait of him in a striped blue suit looking over his shoulder … It was an admirable likeness, more so than any of those done by himself or Gauguin …’4Hartrick, A. S. A Painter’s Pilgrimage through Fifty Years (Cambridge) 1939, p. 42.

The portrait which dates between Van Gogh’s arrival at Cormon’s in February/March 1886 and Russell’s departure for Italy in the autumn of the same year, is inscribed ‘Vincent Pictor’ in red to the left of the head and on the other side ‘J. P. Russell Paris 1886 Amitie’. Russell habitually used this type of inscription on the pencil and oil sketches of his friends dating from his early Paris years. 

It would seem that Russell thought of himself primarily as a portraitist and figure painter when he first went to Paris. His earliest extant portraits date from 1882/3 and were painted in Sydney. One of them, Portrait of Thomas Richards, Government Printer (oil on canvas, 90 x 75 cm, Mitchell Library, Sydney) (fig. 1) shows the subject seated, resting his clasped hands on his walking cane. The head is painted according to the ebauche formula learnt from the practical demonstration sessions Legros performed for his students at the Slade. It is competent, but the hands betray Russell’s inexperience. The picture at best is a moderately successful studio venture, but it gives no hint of the originality and decorative skills Russell was to display in his later portraits dating from the Paris years.

In the Portrait of Van Gogh (oil on cloth, 60 x 45 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) (fig. 2) the subject is again set against a dark and featureless background. However instead of giving us the customary full face or strict profile view, Russell has turned the head to a three-quarter angle. The gaze of the subject is somewhat downcast and elusive, the first time we have seen Russell attempting to introduce some psychological insight into his sitter’s character. The fingers and thumb of Van Gogh’s right hand are shown holding a pencil, an emblem of the sitter, again an innovatory note for Russell. Lighting is still conventionally left to right but the twist of the head catches it with a new drama. The brushwork on the face and hand is noticeably more broken, tentative and suggestive.

It was during his years as a student in Paris that Russell’s interest in landscape began to outweigh his preference for figure painting. His new student milieu showed no interest at all in the idealised and narrative art that was currently so highly prized at the Royal Academy exhibitions in London. Yet it was in London that Russell had had his first opportunity of seeing the work of Monet and Pissarro as well as that of Whistler. 

In Paris he found himself in a studio which had become something of a battlefield between the last-ditch stand the upholders of academic art were making against the artistic innovations set in train by the impressionist experiments of Renoir and Monet in the 1860s. Russell did not, initially, identify with the cloissoniste experiments of Anquetin and Bernard, however. His easy-going personality needed a personal catalyst: and that was to be Vincent Van Gogh. 

Their common situation as foreigners in Paris, both facing something of a crisis with their art and both perplexed by the multi-faceted face that the avant-garde presented in the years 1886–8, seems to have drawn them together. Under the stimulus of Vincent, Russell resolved to take his painting seriously and to see himself as a professional artist in the company of other professional artists. It was a struggle, and Van Gogh was aware of this, encouraging him all the time. Throughout his life Russell seems to have lacked confidence in himself as an artist and the acute Vincent recognised this and gave him support. His understanding of Russell is evident from a letter he wrote from Arles in the spring of 1888: 

‘I heartily hope that you will be able to leave Paris for good soon and no doubt leaving Paris will do you the world of good in all respects.’5Van Gogh, op. cit., Vol. II, No. 477a.

The next surviving evidence we have of the friendship is a letter written from Arles at the end of June or the beginning of July 1888. Van Gogh had left Paris in February and was never to see Russell again. He was unable to accept an invitation Russell proffered to stay at Belle Ile, because he could not, in 1888, meet the travelling expenses. Thus the period of actual physical contact between the two lasted only from February/March 1886 to February 1888. Within this time-span Russell spent a considerable amount of time out of Paris; he was there only in the spring and early autumn of 1886 and the late spring, early summer and the rest of 1887 up until Van Gogh left the capital for Arles in February the following year. 


Van Gogh’s responses to the art he saw in Paris during this period were undoubtedly mixed. After leaving Cormon’s, his financial situation precluded life studies, so he experimented with colour complementaries in still life paintings. Anquetin and Bernard were using pure colour and simplifying shapes in their early cloissoniste experiments at this time, so Vincent’s new interest in colour was probably stimulated by the contacts he had made at Cormon’s. Eighteen months later we find Russell and another student from the atelier, the American W. Dodge Macknight, making similar experiments with colour complementaries, Macknight at Arles and Russell at Belle Ile. 

It was probably through Van Gogh that Russell came into contact with Armand Guillaumin whom Van Gogh had met not long after his arrival in Paris.6A. Hammacher, ‘Van Gogh’s relationship with Signac’, Marlborough Art Gallery Exhibition, Catalogue Essay, p. 91, (London), 1965. As Pissarro spent most of his time at Eragny, Gauguin was away in Brittany and Monet at Giverny, Guillaumin was in fact the Impressionist who had the closest contact with Van Gogh during his stay in Paris. Van Gogh advised Emile Bernard to visit Guillaumin in his studio in 13 Quai d’Anjou7Van Gogh, op. cit., Vol. III, Appendix 474. and could have introduced Russell in much the same way. 

Russell is known to have bought works by Guillaumin8Ibid, Nos 480, 482, 5 May 1888. and his undated paintings of the Seine (Vue de la Seine á Bougival,9Oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm, National Collection, Canberra. Ile de la Jatte á Neuilly,10Oil on canvas laid down on board, 20.9 x 30.7 cm, L. H. Ledger Collection, Benalla Regional Art Gallery, Benalla. Pont de Pecq, Seine11Oil on canvas, 60.2 x 60.4 cm, National Collection, Canberra.) which would seem to belong to the summer and autumn of 1887, are far closer to the denser, darker and altogether more graphic Seine studies of Guillaumin, Signac and Van Gogh than they are to the lighter and more fluid studies of the river made earlier by Monet and Renoir. 

The Seine studies of 1887 show Russell and Van Gogh to have been working quite closely stylistically, although there is no hard evidence to show that they ever painted the banks and bridges of the Seine together. 

Van Gogh’s influence on Russell’s development during this period is apparent elsewhere. If Jean-Francois Millet, peasant themes and archaising landscapes had been introduced to Russell via Alphonse Legros in London, it was Van Gogh’s passion for such subjects that radically altered Russell’s treatment of them; and it was Van Gogh’s discovery of the artistic possibilities of Japanese prints that was perhaps the strongest influence on Russell’s radically altered use of pictorial space in his portraits and studies of heads dating from 1887.

Van Gogh organised a small exhibition of Japanese prints in Paris in February 1887 and he seems to have acted as an agent for the dealer in oriental wares at that time, Samuel Bing. Russell was in Italy at the time of the exhibition, but not long afterwards Van Gogh began to make direct copies of specific prints, and it would seem that Russell was familiar with these. Van Gogh’s copy after Hiroshige of Japonaiserie: the flowering plum tree12Oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm, La Faille, No. 371 Collection, Rijksmuseum Van Gogh, Amsterdam. is echoed by Russell in his two studies of Amandiers en fleurs (private collection, Brittany, France and The Joseph Brown Collection, Melbourne). One of the Russell pictures is inscribed ‘Longpré’, a village where he is known to have painted in May 1887 and by which time he could have seen Van Gogh’s copy after Hiroshige.

The Russell study indicates an entirely new approach to pictorial space, one in which the three-dimensional forms are flattened out and set one behind the other as if they were a series of screens. At the same time Russell shows a new interest in colour resonance and purity. In Peonies and head of a woman (oil on canvas, 65 x 41 cm, The Joseph Brown Collection, Melbourne) (fig. 3) one of a series of heads set amongst flowers, Russell has schematised a setting which had been popular with Rosetti and Burne-Jones in the 1860s, and with G. F. Watts – an artist whom Russell is known to have admired. He has set the head, seen in profile, low on the horizontally-shaped canvas, beneath a heavy grouping of pink and white peony roses and dark green leaves. The screen-like arrangement, which is broken behind the head in the centre and at the lower left to allow the warmer-toned greens and yellow to show through, is far more dependent upon the flat pictorial structures of Japanese prints than it is upon Victorian prototypes. The picture is set in daylight, and Russell has carefully registered the green in the shaded flesh of the face. 

This new interest in colour observation, is evident in one of the great paintings from that summer of 1887, the Portrait of Dr Maloney (oil on canvas, 40.9 x 30.8 cm, National Gallery of Victoria) (fig. 4). In this, one of Russell’s most remarkable portraits, the subject is sitting facing the viewer with his arms crossed across the back of a reversed chair. Light falls from above, highlighting the sitter’s face and causing greenish shadows about the eyes. It strikes with an almost blinding ferocity Maloney’s pink and white striped shirt. The brushwork is controlled and the strokes are confined, unlike the Van Gogh portrait of the previous year, to compact squarish shapes. Bearing out his new interest in Japanese prints, Russell has now tried to make the overall surface decorative, and has hung a bronze-coloured Japanese scroll behind the sitter’s head. As in the Van Gogh portrait Russell has inscribed the canvas with ‘Amitie Will Maloney Medicus 1887 J. P. Russell Pictor Paris’ across the bottom of the canvas. 

The portrait displays a new confidence and a new independence for Russell, qualities which were encouraged by his friendship with Van Gogh in Paris. And even after two years away from that centre, two years which saw a great deal of personal tragedy and frustration. Van Gogh did not forget Russell. In January 1890, six months before he shot himself, Vincent wrote from Auvers that he was sending him a roll of photographs of pictures by Millet – ‘However this may be, the purpose is to remind you of myself and my brother.’ He tells Russell of his ‘serious nervous crisis’ and of the quarrel with Gauguin.13Van Gogh, op. cit., Vol. III, No 623a, end of January, 1890. But the letter is not intended as an expression of self-pity but rather of goodwill, friendship, ‘amitie’ for the Australian friend of his student days in Paris. Perhaps foreshadowing his suicide, he urges Russell to have a permanent memento of those years: 


‘If you should go to Paris, please go and take a canvas of mine at my brothers if you still stick to the idea of someday getting together a collection for your native country. 


‘You will remember that I have already told you it is my great desire to give you one for this purpose.’14Ibid.

It was an option John Russell never took up. 

Ann Galbally, Lecturer, Department of Fine Arts, University of Melbourne (in 1976). 


1          Van Gogh, Collected Letters, Thames and Hudson, (London), Vol. II. No. 449. 

2          E, Bernard. Van Gogh raconté par lui-même et par ses amis, Pierre Cailler (ed) (Genève) 1947, p. 161. 

3          Van Gogh, op. cit., Vol II. 

4          Hartrick, A. S. A Painter’s Pilgrimage through Fifty Years (Cambridge) 1939, p. 42. 

5          Van Gogh, op. cit., Vol. II, No. 477a. 

6          A. Hammacher, ‘Van Gogh’s relationship with Signac’, Marlborough Art Gallery Exhibition, Catalogue Essay, p. 91, (London), 1965. 

7          Van Gogh, op. cit., Vol. III, Appendix 474. 

8          Ibid, Nos 480, 482, 5 May 1888. 

9          Oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm, National Collection, Canberra. 

10         Oil on canvas laid down on board, 20.9 x 30.7 cm, L. H. Ledger Collection, Benalla Regional Art Gallery, Benalla. 

11         Oil on canvas, 60.2 x 60.4 cm, National Collection, Canberra. 

12         Oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm, La Faille, No. 371 Collection, Rijksmuseum Van Gogh, Amsterdam. 

13         Van Gogh, op. cit., Vol. III, No 623a, end of January, 1890. 

14         Ibid.