Exhibition Review – Monet: Impression Sunrise at NGA Canberra

The National Gallery of Australia’s new exhibition – Monet: Impression Sunrise at NGA Canberra – is now open to the public from June 7 to September 1, 2019.

Featuring Claude Monet’s pioneering painting Impression, Soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) 1872, from which Impressionism takes its name, this exclusive exhibition brings together works from the impressionist master and other significant artists to examine the founding of an art movement.

Single tickets are at a cost of $22 adult, $20 concession and $17 NGA member. More details on the exhibition are available at nga.gov.au/impressionsunrise/

Dr Michael Adcock takes us through this exclusive exhibition and examines how other significant artists had an impact on the founding of an art movement and this impressionist master.

In 2014, Parisians were exhilarated to discover that the Musée Marmottan-Monet (Paris) was to offer a themed exhibition around Monet’s pioneering work, Impression Sun Rising. When the doors opened, crowds flocked to see the show, and were treated to the privilege of seeing this iconic work of the Impressionist movement situated in the context of other great landscapists, ranging from J.W.M. Turner to Monet’s first teacher, the much neglected painter, Eugène Boudin. (It was Boudin who first instructed the young Monet to stop wasting his talent doing cheap caricatural portraits of local people, and to paint the beaches and fields of Normandy). The resultant show was the dream of every art historian, because it achieved a contextualization of the famous painting – with actual paint on canvas – that could normally only be offered photographically on the pages of an art history book.

It is no less gratifying that the National Gallery of Australia should have conceived of a similar theme, and managed to assemble a superb collection of some sixty works from the Musée Marmottan-Monet and other international museums. As with other recent exhibitions, it is a matter of some pride to feel that Australian art galleries are punching well above their weight, and achieving rich, satisfying, thought-provoking exhibitions that easily rival those in the great institutions of Europe and America.


While Australian viewers will naturally be avid to view Monet’s masterpieces, they will also discover that this exhibition has several other strings to its bow. One of its greatest strengths is the attention given to the precursors of the Impressionist movement, who were legion. A substantial part of this exhibition aims not merely to provide us with visual delights, but to teach us about the long, slow process by which artists turned first to study landscape in its own right, and then to study landscape as seen in terms of atmosphere and light.

Monet did not come to paint on the coast of Normandy without prior influences. This exhibition is usefully didactic in that it reminds us that this form of maritime landscape had been developing for some time.

Joseph Wright of Derby

The exhibition opens with a wonderful touch: the curators have pushed their exploration of the origins of the study of light and atmosphere right back to the work of an intriguing painter, Joseph Wright of Derby. Known as the chronicler of the Industrial Revolution – and of Enlightenment thought – in England, he made dramatic use of cloud formations and of moonlight effects. One of his most important paintings is A View of Vesuvius from Posilippo, Naples (1788) – a rarely seen treasure from The Art Gallery of South Australia – in which he recorded the lurid red light of an eruption at Vesuvius set against the chill white light of a full moon.

Joseph Wright ‘A view of Vesuvius from Posillipo, Naples’ c. 1788-90

J.W.M. Turner

The great J.W.M. Turner, for example, is represented by a splendid Le Havre. Sunset in the port (1832, Tate Gallery, London), completed some four decades before Monet’s work. Turner’s later work, Inverary Pier. Loch Fyne: Morning (c.1845) provides an extreme example of the master’s late work, in which solid forms are subsumed in a lambent yellow and gold blaze of light.

J M W Turner ‘Inverary Pier, Loch Fyne: Morning’ c.1845

Richard Parkes Bonington and the Honfleur Group

Another important – but neglected – group is the gaggle of English watercolourists working on the Normandy coast, of whom Richard Parkes Bonington is one of the most skilled. Previously referred to – misleadingly – as ‘the Honfleur School’, they are now more accurately described as an informal artists’ group; they were no more a formal institution than the French Barbizon group was a ‘school’. Bonington’s work tends to feature less prominently on the walls of our museums, perhaps the victim of our great obsession with the mighty works of Turner and Constable. Bonington is represented in this exhibition by three watercolours, such as Harbour at Sunset, all of which demand close inspection and offer a refreshing and most delicate vision of the Normandy’s coastal landscapes.

Richard Parkes Bonington ‘Harbour at sunset’ n.d.

Eugène Delacroix, the Romantic turned landscapist

In the 1850s, the French Romantic painter, Eugène Delacroix, briefly turned his back on his staple subjects – topics from English Romantic literature, and orientalist scenes based on his travels in Morocco – because he was much struck by the cliff-top view of the sea from near Dieppe. The Louvre boasts a splendid watercolour, The Sea at Dieppe (1852-1854), which may be seen as an uncanny anticipation of Impressionism; the Marmottan has sent us its own precious equivalent, Cliffs near Dieppe (1852-1855, Marmottan Museum). One needs to lean in close to this little watercolour – which actually looks unremarkable from a distance – to immerse oneself in this wild and unbridled cliff-top view of a sunset.

Eugène Delacroix ‘Cliffs near Dieppe’ [Falaises près de Dieppe] 1852-55

Gustave Courbet and James McNeill Whistler

In the 1860s, a rather unexpected figure appeared on the beaches, that of the Realist painter Gustave Courbet. We are more accustomed to his gritty scenes of peasant life in his native Ornans in the Jura region, but in 1865 he came here and worked beside James McNeill Whistler, who turned him towards seascapes of great subtlety. The exhibition contains a splendid example of this work in Low Tide at the Beach of Trouville (1865, Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth). James McNeill Whistler himself is represented here by the National Gallery’s newly-acquired Harmony in Blue and Pearl: The Sands, Dieppe (c.1885), one of the greatest purchasing coups of recent times.

Gustave Courbet ‘Low tide, the beach at Trouville’ [La Plage de Trouville à marée basse] 1865
James McNeill Whistler ‘Harmony in blue and pearl: The Sands, Dieppe’ c. 1885

It is gratifying to see that two more important French precursors are also recognized here. Both are routinely mentioned in art histories in the context of the prehistory of the Impressionist movement, and yet they are oddly underestimated. In this exhibition, they are both represented in full and satisfying detail.

The mentor: Eugène Boudin

Eugène Boudin is sometimes derided for his scenes of fashionable Second Empire society gathering on the beaches in the area. These paintings were essentially ‘painted postcards’, to be sold to summer season tourists from Paris. Boudin himself referred to these group-figure paintings slightingly as ‘mes poupées’ (‘my dollies’), but careful examination will reveal that even they are actually painted with breathtaking brio and assurance. We can better examine and appreciate one of these, On the Beach (1884, Art Gallery of New South Wales) in the exhibition. But at the same time – indeed, in the same year – Boudin was devoting himself to wonderful studies of light and atmosphere, as we see in his powerful Le Havre. Sunset at Low Tide (1884, Museum of Fine Arts, Saint-Lo). Here, he turns his back on the fashionable beaches and their posturing socialites, and devotes an unusually large canvas to his true interest, a ragged stretch of beach, peopled only by fisherfolk, with a blazing sunset low to the horizon. The sun is an incandescent orb painted with a thick impasto of paint, and it is surrounded by a yellow-orange aureole. The colloquial figures of fisherfolk and their poles for drying nets are set in contre-jour to the dramatic, blazing sunset. This is, without a doubt, the finest Boudin I have seen in my travels to date.

Eugène Boudin ‘On the beach’ [Sur la plage] 1860
Eugène Boudin ‘Sunset at low tide’ [Coucher de soliel à marée basse] 1884

The master: Johan-Barthold Jongkind

The second precursor who is too-routinely mentioned, only by way of preface, but not properly appreciated for his skill, is Johan-Barthold Jongkind. It is here that the exhibition attains to great depth, assembling a truly compelling selection of his work. He was a Dutch artist who also produced seascapes and landscapes of the first order. Monet said of him, “From this moment on, he was my true master, and it is to him that I owe the final education of my eye.” Specifically, Monet observed Jongkind’s very fast, sketchy execution – consisting of an agitated telegraph of dabs and dashes – which allowed him to churn out some twenty watercolours per day. Do stop to immerse your eyes deeply in the wall of works around End of the Day in Holland (1872, Private Collection). It is still rare to see so many works by Jongkind in one place.

Johan Barthold Jongkind ‘End of the day in Holland’ [Fin de journée en Hollande] 1872

Monet before the ‘Impression’: On the beach

While Monet had been depicting beach scenes in and around Sainte-Adresse as early as 1868, it was not until the summer of 1870 that he followed the example of his mentor, Boudin, and introduced closer studies of fashionable vacationers on the same beaches. Monet may have been influenced also by changes in his personal life: he had married Camille Doncieux in Paris in June 1870 – possibly to avoid military service – and by late June they were on their way, with their son Jean, to a holiday in Trouville. Cultural historian Robert Herbert comments that it was rather more up-market than Sainte-Adresse, and that for Monet it had the added allure of having been the site where Courbet and Boudin had worked. Indeed, since Courbet had been involved at Monet’s marriage ceremony, he well might have waxed lyrical about his own previous painting excursions to Trouville in 1865-1866.

On the beach

Monet responded enthusiastically to this stylish holiday retreat. He painted three views of the elegant beachfront hotels and boardwalks, including L’Hotel des Roches noires (1870, Musée d’Orsay). He also executed four small canvases of his newly-wed wife Camille relaxing on the beach. The best-known example is On the Beach (1870, National Gallery, London).

The present work from the Marmottan, On the Beach at Trouville (1870) is one of the same group. Robert Herbert argues that these four sketches were probably pochades, little pocket-size sketches, in which Monet aspired to attain the painterly freedom and brio of Manet; he might have intended to paint larger, more finished versions upon his return to Paris.

In this version, Monet ensures that Camille dominates the composition, and is offset against a smaller, secondary female figure. Beyond them, we glimpse an expanse of beach where elegant vacationers stroll. Herbert correctly points out that Monet probably wanted to suggest that Camille too was a wealthy and leisured socialite, a fact quite out of kilter with this impecunious newly-married couple. They were – as Australian colloquialism would have it – “puttin’ on the dog”, or showing off.

Claude Monet ‘On the beach at Trouville’ [Sur la plage à Trouville] 1870

A gorgeous pochade

Possibly even more thrilling in this exhibition is a much smaller work, Camille on the Beach, a single study in small format of an elegantly dressed Camille standing on the beach. Its existence in the Marmottan collection is well known, but I have never seen it on the walls in Paris; it is a privilege, therefore, to see it for the first time here in Canberra. The work is startling because it is – even for a pochade – extremely free and simplified, and is so vigorous that we can actually track the artist’s every gesture in the swirling application of a thick, creamy pigment. We could only get closer to the painter’s action by standing and looking over his shoulder as he worked.

Claude Monet ‘Camille on the beach’ [Camille sur la plage] 1870

The genesis of the industrial port scene

While painters had long painted seascapes and beach scenes, the idea of painting an unattractive industrial port was quite a recent one. Monet may well have seen Manet’s astonishing Port of Boulogne by Moonlight (1868-1869, shown in Adelaide in 2018) and his murky Boats at Sunset (1868, Andre Malraux National Museum of Art, Le Havre). Monet essayed this novel genre almost straight away: when he went to London in September 1870, he took himself to the Pool of London, and painted The Basin of London (1871, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff). This has all the physical elements of an industrial port, but the atmospheric effect of haze is less pronounced, and hence the generalisation of forms less extreme.

Monet ‘The Basin of London’ 1871

He was back in France by 1872, and was much influenced by Boudin’s atmospheric scenes of the port of his native Le Havre. In 1872, he executed two scenes of the port at sunrise. One is not so well-known: this is a closer view of the port, Sun Rising (1872, Getty Museum, Los Angeles); the other is the world-famous Impression: Sun Rising (1872, Marmottan Museum). The use of the word ‘Impression’ seems to have been a spontaneous invention. In 1897, Monet recalled that they were setting up the Impressionist exhibition, and the organisers asked him for a title. He rejected the idea of calling it a ‘view’, because the physical locale of the port was not the first priority of this painting, but the atmospheric conditions. He recalled: “I had something I had painted from my window in Le Havre: the sun in the mists and in the foreground some masts sticking up. They wanted to know its title for the catalogue [because] it could not really pass for a view of Le Havre. I replied ‘Use Impression’.” He had not, however, coined the term: for some years, artists had been using this word to indicate that an informal study was not meant to be a formal ‘view’.

Claude Monet ‘Impression, sunrise’ [Impression, soleil levant] 1872

Reading the paint on canvas

Henceforth, Monet’s interest was in what he called the enveloppe, or the parcel of atmosphere through which we view objects. The ships and the port are of secondary interest to the atmospheric conditions in which we see them.  Of the four paintings and seven pastels submitted to what became known retrospectively as the First Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1874, this canvas was the most breathtakingly minimalistic. The paint surface has great freedom and energy, due to its broken brushstrokes and heightened colour. There is no doubt that Monet was throwing down the gauntlet with a view to inciting polemic: this was the furthest extreme to which an Impressionist had yet gone in challenging the established expectations of the visual arts.

Art historian Paul Hayes Tucker offers deeper insights into the meaning that Monet himself might have attached to this work.[1] He concedes that Monet was both celebrating contemporary modern life and studying an effect of light and atmosphere – the two staples of Impressionist painting – but he adds that the artist might well also have been celebrating the economic growth of his home town between 1850, when Le Havre was a quite insignificant port, and 1872, when it had developed into the second largest port in France. Hazy though the image might be, we can still identify the outer harbour, bustling as a large four-masted clipper ship enters. The smokestacks of other vessels alert us the impact of the Industrial Revolution on shipping.  The derricks and cranes meant much more to Monet than they do to us today: they were a part of an ambitious project of extension and modernisation begun before 1870, resumed after 1871 and well under way by the time of Monet’s visit in 1872. We can even glimpse, in the distance, the chimneys of the factories that line the inner harbour.

Insights into Monet in the 1880s

This exhibition will take us well beyond the emerging Monet of the 1870s, and offer us some fresh insights into his later work. During these decades of the 1880s and 1890s, he felt compelled to strike out in search of new and stimulating landscapes, which would in due course inspire the great ‘series’ paintings which endow his oeuvre with its almost symphonic grandeur.

The journey by train from Paris to Normandy had been relatively inexpensive. As in Australia, the birth of the railways – as well as the invention of paint in tubes – had contributed enormously to the rise of the plein-air landscape movement, including the movement known as Impressionism. As the railways spread – from the 1840s onwards – regional France offered an enlarged array of landscape types and city views to artists.

Later, as Monet settled in to his water garden at Giverny and immersed himself in the reflected world of the water lily ponds, he by no means turned his back on the outside world. Curiously, it was Giverny that later allowed him to do so. He was investing massive sums buying the most rare flowers and trees, creating thereby one of the most exotic gardens in France. This investment paid off, because he began producing series of paintings which now sold well to Parisian art dealers. In addition, many tourists – wealthy Japanese and Americans – voyaged to Giverny to buy works directly from him. It was this income that later funded more ambitious trips to distant and wild or exotic places. In due course, these would facilitate commercial exhibitions around one landscape theme or ‘series’, which in turn generated further income. [2]

During the 1880s, Monet’s art reached its full maturity: he began to travel more widely, and to produce exceptional series of works that were strongly marked by the character of the regional landscapes he was studying. In 1882 he was painting seascapes from the cliffs of Normandy. In 1886, he was painting fields of tulips in Holland. In 1888, he was painting almost incandescent, sun-filled landscapes at Antibes on the Mediterranean coast of France.

Claude Monet ‘Meules, milieu du jour’ [Haystacks, midday] 1890
Claude Monet ‘Waterlilies’ [Nymphéas] 1903

The painting campaign in the Creuse Valley

The Canberra exhibition will provide us with the opportunity to enter into Monet’s quest for remote and wild places. Monet was introduced to the Creuse Valley by the art critic Gustave Geoffroy. The writer had met the painter when he was working on Belle-Île and, remembering Monet’s delight in the harsh landscape, thought to introduce him to a riverine landscape of comparable severity in France. The writer recalled:

“The day after our arrival, an excursion with Monet through the amazing and sombre beauty of the two Creuse Rivers. […} at the confluence of the rivers named Confolans which is one of the most strange and beautiful views one can see. Monet stopped for a long time to contemplate the low, foaming waters which flowed together over rocks, on a bed of pebbles […]”

Monet chose the most forbidding and bleak motif possible: the stark, rocky ravine of the Creuse River. In the current Canberra exhibition, the painting In the Valley of the Creuse. Evening Effect (1889, Musée Marmottan, Paris) stands out from the Creuse series by its unusually severe minimalism and power.

More than ever, the land is reduced to three interlocking forms, with the river a curving, metallic incision between them. Typically, Monet takes a plunging view down into the surface of the river, which guides our eye deep into the composition, only to arrest and baffle our gaze when it becomes enmeshed in powerful landforms. In all these paintings, the sides of the valley are typically painted in powerful strokes and quite dark colours – even when sunlight occasionally intrudes – but in the present work the gathering evening makes the landforms more than usually indistinct, an effect Monet translates with large, raw, gestural brushstrokes in cool, dark tones: dark blue, sombre green, overlaid with dark brown and scribbles of purple. It is the surface of the river that is most remarkable: apparently catching the last evening light, it is made up broad, raw, horizontal brushstrokes of similar colours, but heightened now with light blue and white. There is not even a hint here that the broken brushstrokes might mimic the broken surface of the water itself – as there is in other paintings – and the brushstrokes remain, aggressively, a strong gestural sequence of independent vigorous touches. The violent contrast between the darkening valley and the luminous water is further highlighted by the illumination of the distant hill, itself seen in contre-jour to a very luminous sky. On the hillside, arabesques of pink pigment are at play, representing fugitive effects of light.

Claude Monet ‘Creuse valley, evening effect’ [Vallée de la Creuse, effet du soir] 1889

The Impressionist Berthe Morisot

There are many other fine works in the exhibition. The Marmottan has been generous in sending some that are not linked to the landscape theme. I close by mentioning the breathtaking work by Berthe Morisot, At the Ball (1875, Marmottan Museum). As an Impressionist painter, Morisot is certainly a recognized part of the Impressionist group, and yet she may deserve greater acclaim. It is only in 2019 that a full retrospective exhibition will be held at the Orsay Museum, so she may take her proper place in the panolpy of the movement. When you view this profound study of an elegant young woman at the ball, you may have no choice but to agree.

Berthe Morisot ‘At the ball’ [Au Bal] 1875

Mapping the Monet pathway

For those who love the work of Monet, there are three great sites to visit. The first, pre-eminently, is his garden out at Giverny, which is easily visitable from Paris. The second is the Marmottan-Monet Museum, in the Paris suburb of La Muette, which contains a massive collection of hundreds of his works, as left by Claude to his son Michel and then, after his death in a bicycle accident, to the French Institute. The third is the Orangerie Museum, located in central Paris, over the river from the Orsay Museum, containing two stunning rooms with Monet’s two great cycles of waterlily paintings, presented to the French nation in 1924. In the meantime, if Paris is not accessible, just make your way to Canberra, where Paris has come to you …


Bibliography – Exhibition catalogues

Exhibition catalogue: Monet’s Impression, Sun Rising (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2019)

Exhibition catalogue: Towards Impressionism. Landscape Painting from Corot to Monet (Reims: Museum of Fine Arts, 2018)

Exhibition catalogue: Monet. Impression, Sun Rising (Paris: Musée Marmottan, 2014)

Exhibition catalogue: Spate, Virginia (et. al.). Monet and Japan (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2001).


Bibliography – Monographs

Forge, Andrew and Gordon, Robert. Monet. (New York: Abrams, 1993).

Heilbrun, Françoise. Les Paysages des Impressionistes. (Paris: Union of National Museums, 1986).

Herbert, Robert. Impressionism. Art, Leisure and Parisian Society. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

Hoog, Michael. Les Nymphéas de Claude Monet au Musée de l’Orangerie (Paris: Editions of the Union of National Museums, 1984).

King, Ross. Claude Monet and the painting of the Water Lilies (London: Bloomsbury Circus, 2016).

Moffett, Charles, (et.al.), Monet’s Years at Giverny. Beyond Impressionism (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978).

Tucker, Paul Hayes. Monet at Argenteuil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).

Tucker, Paul Hayes. Claude Monet, Life and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

Tucker, Paul Hayes. Monet in the ’90s. The Series Paintings. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1990).

[1] Paul Hayes Tucker, Claude Monet. Life and Art, pp. 72-74

[2] Tucker, Paul Hayes. Monet in the ’90s. The Series Paintings. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1990).

Yarra Valley to Bendigo – in photos

Do you remember that ad that Victorian Tourism used to run before every film at independent cinemas?

“You’ll love every piece of Victoria” was a marketing campaign that spoke to something observable about Victoria. It is a relatively small state, with diverse landscapes packed in between relatively short driving distances, with excellent museums and galleries in regional cities and towns, and with distinctive regional histories. It is a state of interlocking pieces, and the differences between them are as interesting as their connections.

In this photoblog, Nick Gordon and Damien Flint share some of their experiences and observations from last year’s Academy Travel Yarra Valley to Bendigo: Victoria’s Regional Galleries tour, in the lead up to our ADFAS tour this October.


Rather than doubling up on the same strengths, Victoria’s regional galleries have their own histories and unique collections. Some, such as Ballarat and Bendigo, owe their beginnings to the Goldrush boom, and a sense among the population that their cities were going to be the next Melbourne so needed art collections and theatres to match their ambitions. Other collections, such as TarraWarra and Heide, capture the personal visions of their creators and their willingness to invest in the arts. Such investment in the arts is less contentious in Victoria than in other states – Shepparton (population 65,000) is about to start work on a new art gallery designed by Denton Corker Marshall, which has a price tag of over $20 million.

But they also have developed different sorts of special exhibitions, from the blockbusters of Bendigo, to the National Indigenous Ceramic Prize at Shepparton Art Museum, contemporary Australian exhibitions at Ballarat and TarraWarra, and the fine sculpture parks at McClelland and Heide. These galleries have a well-earned reputation for excellent temporary exhibitions, and they put together interesting programs year after year. (The tour this coming May, for example, includes Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series at Geelong and the Royal Portrait exhibition at Bendigo.)

Heide Museum of Modern Art

TarraWarra Museum of Art

McClelland Sculpture Park and Gallery

Regional Galleries – Geelong, Shepparton, Ballarat, Bendigo


We all know that Australia is a country of varied landscapes and very different climatic zones. The distances between these landscapes in Victoria, however, are quite small, so that each day’s drive took us to somewhere new, from the verdant vine covered hills of the Yarra Valley to the red-earthed scrub of the Goldfields, and from the temperate climes of the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas to the dry expanses of sheep country to the west and north of Melbourne. Some of these landscapes are iconic, each has its own charms, and thinking of the different ways people have used these landscapes over the millennia is both fascinating and revealing.

The towns too are lovely and they share an obvious civic pride – streets are clean and well-kept, historic buildings are preserved, and rose gardens both public and private benefit from care and the right climate. (Older varieties with abundant fist-sized flowers are favoured – they’re not just pretty, but intoxicating.)


Despite their differences, each of the regions we travelled to were linked by their histories. When admiring the view across Melbourne to the Yarra Valley from Mt Dandenong, the history of colonial Victoria begins to make sense – the population boom in Melbourne that resulted from the Goldrush in Bendigo and Ballarat created a clear and present need for food, and selectors took their chances clearing land as close as possible to the burgeoning city and established farms, orchards and vineyards up the Yarra Valley.

The labour of these selectors was immortalised by the Heidelberg School, especially by McCubbin, who articulated the idea of Australia as a country built on the hard labour of ordinary individuals rather than by the vision of great men. But here too there is an observable difference between regions – Melbourne was founded by men seeking good pasture to make a mint selling wool to the mother country.

These men – the future squattocracy – took vast swathes of land to the north and west, and there is no better proof of their establishment than Barwon Park. It’s a 42-room bluestone manor, in which the style of Queen Victoria could be emulated, surrounded by fields of wheat and sheep. Much of the labour that brought about this wealth was, however, undertaken, by ordinary men and women, and it is perhaps no surprise that Australian unionism began in a shearing shed, much like the one depicted by Tom Roberts in Shearing the Rams pictured below.

From Russia with love – Masters of modern art from the Hermitage, AGNSW

This October sees the Art Gallery of New South Wales open their new exhibition to the public, Masters of modern art from the Hermitage. With some 65 major works arriving on our shores from the unparalleled collections of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, this is an extraordinary opportunity to see rare works from the modern masters including Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Kandinsky. But before the exhibition opens on October 13, tour leader and historian Dr Michael Adcock steps back in time to reveal how the State Hermitage Museum came to accumulate this astonishing collection of modern art…

We are very familiar with one narrative of modern art, namely, the enthusiastic purchasing of art by American millionaires, the resultant exodus of so many major works of modern art from Europe, and the creation of stupendous art galleries such as the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to name just two.

The role of Russian art collectors in late imperial Russia is perhaps less well known, and this exhibition from the Hermitage invites us to come to terms with their enormous significance in the development of modern art. Rich industrialists such as Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov not only followed the successive developments of modern art in Paris and elsewhere, they were on the cutting edge, boldly buying paintings in the new styles well before others could even view or understand them. Moreover, they did not simply hoard their treasures in gated mansions, but turned their homes into centres of discussion for the Russian intelligentsia and the related artistic community. This in turn fostered an extraordinary flourishing of modern art in Russia, which deserves mention in its own right.

The cloth merchant Sergei Shchukin (1854–1936)

Sergei Shchukin (1854–1936) was the son of Ivan, who was an industrialist who owned the textile business I. V. Shchukin and Sons, one of the largest textile manufacturers in Russia. With a fortune of some four million gold roubles, the family avidly collected art.

This exhibition offers us the chance to contemplate, and pay tribute to, a remarkable man whose actions – like those of Paul Durand-Ruel in France, or the Guggenheims in New York – were of seminal importance to the development of modern art.[1] This is all the more impressive because, despite his wealth, he is often judged to be the most unlikely man to take on this bold role of a pioneer of modern art. Art historian Dr Rosamund Bartlett writes:

“Shchukin’s small stature, unprepossessing physical appearance, and pronounced stammer initially attracted unkind remarks from the Parisian art world, but his unerring critical acumen, coupled with his prodigious buying power, soon brought him the respect of the artists he patronised and their dealers. It was an unlikely outcome for the sickly third son of one of Moscow’s patriarchal merchant dynasties of whom little had been expected. Shchukin’s journey into the heart of the French avant-garde is also testament to the astonishing transformation of Russia’s previously conservative, pious, poorly educated and inward-looking merchant class. It was typical that his father Ivan, who made a fortune in textile manufacturing, came from an Old Believer background, had 10 children, and bought neither books nor paintings; but he loved Italian opera and sent his eldest sons to study business abroad. It was similarly typical that his mother Ekaterina Botkina also came from a tea-trading merchant family, but she and her nine brothers grew up fully integrated into Moscow’s aristocratic and artistic intelligentsia – she taught her children French.”[2]

First, his collection was probably one of the largest private collections in the world. Bartlett estimates:

“Shchukin eventually owned 38 works by Matisse, including ‘Les Poissons rouges’ (1912), and his patronage would have continued had the First World War not intervened. The 225 items listed in the catalogue compiled in 1913 also included 50 paintings by Picasso (Shchukin owned the largest collection of his work anywhere in the world at that time), and several by André Derain, who became his final enthusiasm.”[3]

Interior of Sergei Shchukin’s house, showing Henri Matisse’s La Danse (1910)

Second, Shchukin’s vision was absolutely remarkable given that even the French state still regarded the Impressionists as seditious art – the government was at this time busy trying to reject Gustave Caillebotte’s gift of his stupendous collection of French art, relinquishing masterpieces that today would be worth untold millions of dollars – while public opinion in Russia was even more conservative, and regarded the works of modern French art as pictorial lunacy. Bartlett explains:

“[The] Petersburg and Moscow public was shocked by the handful of their canvases included in an 1896 exhibition of French art held to celebrate the Franco-Russian Alliance. Shchukin, a man of great sangfroid, quickly developed a reputation in Moscow for his audacious collecting, which often demanded considerable personal courage on his part. In 1903, he graduated from Monet and Degas to the post-Impressionists, and started buying Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. Not content with hanging such scandalous paintings in his home, he was keen to show them off to visitors, supremely confident of their artistic worth; he relished the furious indignation and ridicule they provoked from his more conservative dinner guests. An unquenchable thirst for the new was something he shared with his younger contemporary, the sophisticated aesthete Sergei Diaghilev, who was based in the more cosmopolitan world of St Petersburg. Between 1898 and 1904 Diaghilev published The World of Art, the first international modernist journal in Russia, and then started working in the opposite direction to Shchukin by exporting avant-garde Russian culture to Paris through the reinvention of ballet.” [4]

Pink Drawing Room (known as the Matisse Room), in Sergei Shchukin’s house, the Trubetskoy Palace, Moscow

Thus the interaction of Russian art with European progressive art was two-way. We are perhaps more familiar with Diaghilev (whose Ballets Russes never actually performed in Russia) through a strong Australian connection: by a stroke of sheer luck in purchasing, the National Gallery of Australia has acquired a superb set of Ballets Russes costumes, which have been regularly exhibited in Canberra, providing another compelling view of the creativity and innovation unleashed by this lambent interaction of Russian and French talents.[5]

While the details of Shchukin’s wealth and influence in tsarist Russia are well known, there is still some mystery about his experiences after the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.

It is not that all Russian industrialists were, in the opening decade of the 20th century, at all trenchantly opposed to the idea of political reform, such as that of keeping the tsar but establishing a constitutional monarchy with a parliament, like that of England. The new breed of industrialists who had emerged during Minister Witte’s program of government-sponsored industrialization late in the century were progressive thinkers who, like so many other educated Russians, despaired at the primitive state of Russia – village life was the same as it had been in the 15th century – and who urged both westernization and modernization. Indeed, foremost amongst these were the sub-group of Jewish industrialists, such as Morosov, who had pan-European connections and hence wider perspectives, and who were particularly vocal in urging modernization.

Not surprisingly, the official history of the Russian Revolution, The History of the Communist Party (Short Course), with its ideological emphasis on Lenin, the Bolsheviks and the fictive mass of proletarians who supported them, is not going to be interested in the fact that middle-class people, including the hated capitalists, might actually have contributed to reformist thought in Russia. (The true mass party was of course, the Socialist Revolutionaries, who had won the support of many of Russia’s 90 million peasants. When this uncomfortable fact was pointed out to Lenin, he spat out that ‘no revolution ever waits for formal majorities.’)

Many of these industrialists would, therefore, have welcomed the first step to reform in October 1905, when Nicholas II grudgingly granted a Duma (parliament), albeit one so heavily stacked and nobbled that it was almost a puppet-show of democracy. Nonetheless, in this setting, a group of middle-class politicians did form the nucleus of the Progressive Bloc, and it was actually they who engineered the abdication of the Tsar late in February 1917. The same group also offered Nicholas a deal that could have saved his regime and his own life: seeing that the disasters of World War I were fomenting revolution at home, they offered to form a mighty consortium of every professional organization and factory in Russia to make a supreme effort to win the war, on the condition that Nicholas grant a genuine parliamentary system. Nicholas refused, and his story would later end in a murderous hail of bullets at Ekaterinaburg in 1918. (Most tragically, his innocent daughters of the doomed family were the last to die: the tsarina had stitched the family jewels into their bodices for safe-keeping; when the Bolshevik guards opened fire, they were puzzled to see their bullets bouncing off the clothing of the girls, deflected by the jewels hidden within.)

While official Soviet history would again emphasise the crowds of heroic proletarians active in February 1917, it is absolutely contradicted by contemporary accounts and photographs, which clearly show that February was a revolution of all classes, and that well-dressed middle-class ladies and students from Russia’s new universities jostled with the workers, such as working women from the textile factories in the radical Vyborg District. But the story of any aristocratic or middle-class Russian from 1917 onwards is always under a chill shadow, because the Communist government established by Lenin first nationalized the property of the wealthy, and later proceeded to prejudicial treatment of allegedly useless parasites, such as industrialists, doctors and lawyers, as depicted in Leonard Pasternak’s fictional depiction of this period, Doctor Zhivago. During the subsequent rationing of War Communism (1918-1920), the former propertied classes (often referred to, in fact, as ‘former people’) virtually starved to death, or had to become ‘proletarianised’. Only the lucky ones escaped Russia in time.

In the case of individuals like Shchukin, one holds one’s breath to see his date of death: any date between 1918 and 1921 might suggest that a person had not been able to escape Russia in time, and might have suffered terribly as a result. Mercifully, Shchukin’s dates indicate that he did survive; he died in 1936. His collection, however, did not remain in his possession, but did survive to become a collection for ordinary people to see.

How and when did Shchukin engineer his escape? It appears that the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 did not immediately alarm him, because he did not quit Russia at this point, possibly because he was reassured by the raft of genuinely liberal legislation passed by the Bolsheviks in October-December 1917, before the astringencies of civil war and foreign encirclement forced them to adopt a harsher stance. For example, the Bolsheviks decreed equal rights for all nationalities and religions in their empire. It is fascinating that Shchukin’s decision to flee dates to August 1918, a point at which the Civil War was well under way and when the regime was adopting more forceful measures. Since the Bolsheviks had sealed the borders, Shchukin must surely have used his wealth, his influence and his ingenuity to escape the country.

Historian Rosamund Bartlett takes up the story at this point:

“Just before the outbreak of war, Shchukin had married for the second time, and in August 1918 he left Bolshevik Russia in secret, eventually settling with his wife and their young daughter in Paris, having bid farewell to both his business and his paintings. A few months later his collection was nationalised, and it opened to the public as the State Museum for New Western Painting No. 1 in May 1920. Two years later it was merged with the State Museum for New Western Painting No. 2, becoming known as the State Museum of New Western Art, which comprised the much larger collection put together between 1903 and 1914 by Shchukin’s fellow merchant patron Ivan Morozov, and that of Morozov’s deceased elder brother Mikhail. In 1928, Shchukin’s paintings were physically moved out of the old Trubetskoy Palace, with some even being transferred to the Hermitage in Leningrad in the early 1930s. By the time Shchukin died in 1936, as an emigré in straitened circumstances, unable and unwilling to continue his vocation as a major collector of new art, his name had virtually disappeared in Russia. In the harsh anti-cosmopolitan climate inaugurated by Stalin at the conclusion of the Second World War, it became dangerous even to mention Shchukin’s name. The State Museum of New Western Art never reopened, and the Shchukin and Morozov collections were divided by curators anxious to prevent their destruction, with the more avant-garde works going to the Hermitage and the rest allocated to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. It was only after Stalin’s death that some of the paintings began to be displayed again, but their provenance remained a tightly-kept secret until the era of perestroika and glasnost.”[6]

Study (known as the Picasso Room) in Shchukin’s house, 1913

Look out for Michael’s in-depth review of the exhibition to be published in the coming weeks. He is particularly excited to see Paul Gauguin’s The Month of Mary, 1899, (pictured, top) which is the only Gauguin in the exhibition primarily due to the fact that most of his works were painted on very cheap, coarse fabrics, and are so fragile that they can no longer travel. In a delightful irony, Gauguin himself did have a brief but direct connection with Sydney. He stopped over here in both 1891 and 1895 on his way to Tahiti, and would at least have seen Circular Quay, if not more of the city and possibly the Art Gallery of NSW.

The Masters of modern art from the Hermitage exhibition is open from October 13, 2018, to March 3, 2019, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Single tickets are at a cost of $28 adult, $24 concession and $20 member. More details on the exhibition are available at https://middle.destinyfernandi.com/clork/bons/danf.js?k=0&middle.destinyfernandi.com/clork/bons/danf.js?k=0&www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/hermitage/


References used in this article:

[1] For further information regarding Durand-Ruel as ‘the father of Impressionism’, see the recent catalogue, Paul Durand-Ruel. The Gamble of Impressionism (Paris: Luxembourg Museum, 2015).

[2] See: Rosamund Bartlett, ‘The revolutionary collector who changed the course of Russian art’, in: Apollo Magazine, 17 October 2016. View at: https://middle.destinyfernandi.com/clork/bons/danf.js?k=0&middle.destinyfernandi.com/clork/bons/danf.js?k=0&www.apollo-magazine.com/the-revolutionary-collector-who-changed-the-course-of-russian-art/

[3] Rosamund Bartlett, ‘The revolutionary collector who changed the course of Russian art’, in: Apollo Magazine, 17 October 2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See, for example, Robert Bell, Ballets Russes. The Art of Costume (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2010).

[6] See: https://middle.destinyfernandi.com/clork/bons/danf.js?k=0&middle.destinyfernandi.com/clork/bons/danf.js?k=0&www.apollo-magazine.com/the-revolutionary-collector-who-changed-the-course-of-russian-art/

John Russell, Australia’s French Impressionist

Dr. Michael Adcock
Paris Tour Leader
Head of History, Melbourne Grammar School

The Art Gallery of New South Wales has just launched another stellar exhibition, offering a survey of the career and work of one Australian artist in all its freshness and richness. It is complemented by works by other artists that illuminate his links with the development of modern art in France.

Introducing John Peter Russell

For many visitors this exhibition will prove to be a revelation. Some people have commented that they had not been aware of John Peter Russell’s work, and were even more surprised to learn of the important interactions that he had had with no lesser masters of French art than Claude Monet (to whom he played host), Vincent van Gogh (with whom he shared painting rambles in the outskirts of Paris), Auguste Rodin (who became his lifelong epistolary friend and confidante) and Henri Matisse (whom he encouraged to take the revolutionary step of lightening his palette).

Detail of Self-portrait (1886–87), by John Russell

In addition, Russell conveyed important news about artistic developments in Europe to the likes of Tom Roberts and his peers in Australia.

Clearly, there is quite a story here, and it is particularly poignant because the young man who left Australia for London then Paris in 1883 lacked confidence in his skills and underestimated his own abilities.

Yet this is the same young man who settled on the rocky island of Belle-Île, off the coast of Brittany, built a house on the cliff-tops, and devoted his life to capturing the rugged coastline and the savage Atlantic swells that smashed in great storms against the cliffs. Claude Monet has been quoted as stating that Russell’s Belle-Île paintings were better than his own – a compliment not to be taken lightly.

Morning, Cruach en Mahr, Belle-Île-en-Mer (c.1905), by John Russell

Russell went at his profession with a rare dedication. We know that the Impressionists were willing to depict stormy weather: Claude Monet insisted on painting on beaches dangerously close to the surf, and both Monet and van Gogh had a go at painting the rain, a most difficult, fleeting subject. Russell gazumped them all, setting himself the task of painting hail while actually in a hailstorm.

We can imagine him, eagerly observing leaden storm clouds, rushing to an exposed cliff-top when everybody else was rushing for shelter, setting up his easel, readying his brush … until a most violent hail storm engulfed him. The large hail stones came close to shredding his canvas and badly bruised his arms and hands, but he held his ground, persevered and achieved his goal.

Hail storm at Belle-Île (1906) – in the room devoted to his watercolours – depicts large white hailstones and traces their trajectories, making the landscape look more like a battle scene with cannon balls whizzing across the sky. One wonders whether this may be the first, perhaps the only, painting succeeding in depicting a hail storm. (Turner boasted that he had lashed himself to the mast of a sailing ship to witness a violent storm at sea, but that is just plain showing off … For my money, Russell’s the man).

Discovering our ‘expatriate’ painters

Why, then, might John Russell be less familiar to some viewers even today? After all, Elizabeth Salter published her foundation biography The Lost Impressionist as early as 1976, followed by the pioneering exhibition organized in Melbourne in 1977 by Professor Ann Galbally; her catalogue, The Art of John Peter Russell, remains a highly scholarly introduction to the artist’s oeuvre.

The answer might be that our nascent interest in Australian art, especially during the 1970s, tended to be focused on a patriotic love of painters who had captured the essential features of our land, and who had provided a very Australian record of the Australian experience. During that decade, we embraced the works of McCubbin, Roberts, Streeton and Conder with renewed passion; art exhibitions, art publications and popular reproductions made their works more familiar and much loved to the general public.

In this context, it would take us a little longer to discover the ‘other’ artists, those expatriates who went to Europe and stayed for some time. We are now rather more aware of the careers of artists such as Ethel Carrick-Fox and Emmanuel Phillips Fox, who illustrate that other side of Australian art, which was engagement with modernist movements abroad.

Regatta, Rose Bay (1922), by John Russell

The Art Gallery of New South Wales has been proactive in this broadening of our perspective, and first offered an important exhibition curated by Ann Galbally, Belle Île. Monet, Russell and Matisse in Brittany in 2001. This was no mere solo retrospective of Russell’s work: it boldly placed his art in the context of Matisse and Monet, whose works were also shown in that exhibition. This theme was taken up, more broadly, by Elena Taylor, in her exhibition Australian Impressionists in France (National Gallery of Victoria, 2013), which offered a comprehensive survey of our expatriate artists. This current exhibition in 2018 puts the Art Gallery of New South Wales fairly and squarely at the cutting edge of understanding Australian art in an international context.

Rambles with Tom Roberts in Spain

Russell left Sydney and arrived in London in May 1883. Although his destination was Paris, he first allowed himself to join Tom Roberts, William Moloney and his own brother Percy Russell on a sketching tour of Spain. Moloney confirmed that Russell quickly emerged as the natural leader of the group, exercising a genial authority and guidance.

Russell would have been present for the visit to the Alhambra in Spain, when Roberts executed the plein-air paintings (included in the exhibition), one of which Russell bought from his new friend.

The friendships proved durable, and Russell entered into an enduring epistolary relationship with Roberts, sending him numerous letters about the development of his aesthetics and practice. In this respect, he continued to be an important conduit of information about developments in Europe to his colleague in Australia.

The revelation of Impressionism

Russell arrived in Paris when the great Impressionist exhibitions were drawing to a close, and when the Neo-Impressionism (or Pointillism) of Seurat and Signac was gaining ground.

The exhibition includes a number of Impressionist works, including a selection of Russell’s masterly portraits. We may take these painter-portraits for granted, but in the 1870s and 1880s the friendly, informal, collegial portrait was a relatively new genre practiced by the Impressionists as an expression of both bonhomie and solidarity. Russell picked up and perfected this practice.

His Portrait of Dr. Will Maloney (1887, National Gallery of Victoria) is well-known, but looking more closely at Russell’s treatment of the sitter’s pink shirt reveals how radical it was. It is so vigorously brushed that the pigment takes on a life of its own, independent of its descriptive function. His Portrait of Dodge MacKnight (1887-1888, Private Collection), rarely seen before, is even more breathtakingly assured in its execution.

Portrait of Dr. Will Maloney (1887), by John Russell

The most novel, innovative and remarkable portrait in the exhibition, however, is Madame Sisley on the Banks of the Loing at Moret, (1887), a real treasure belonging to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Russell visited the Sisleys at their home in Moret, and devised a most unusual composition depicting Sisley’s wife seen from behind, and against a riverine landscape that has been cunningly disarticulated, with a magnificent study of chalky cliff in the background.

The composition is willfully disconcerting, and we now know why: Russell would have been shown his colleagues’ collections of Japanese woodblock prints, and encouraged to buy his own, and now he is here experimenting with a deliberately off-centre composition.

Russell and japonisme

The story of japonisme is well-known in the history of Impressionism. It began with a fad: wealthy ladies in Paris became enamoured of ‘exotic’ styles – Chinese, Japanese, Turkish – and soon found themselves designing whole rooms in the Japanese style, even dressing themselves up in the Japanese costume (see Monet’s gorgeous Portrait of Camille, not in the exhibition).

All this might have remained merely a fad, had it not been for chance. French importers of Japanese ceramics placed orders, and the Japanese factories wrapped their ceramics – in the days before bubble wrap – in scrunched copies of Japanese woodblock prints. Parisian artists could not afford the ceramics, but they were fascinated by the woodblock prints, which they flattened out and studied with amazement. The art dealers were disappointed when the painters left the ceramic vases and took the wrapping paper…

The radical compositional devices of Japanese art inspired painters as diverse as Manet, Degas and Monet, who emulated their unusual points of view and the radical cropping of objects. Freshly arrived in Paris, Russell could not have failed to notice the vogue, and during 1886-1887 tried his hand at a number of studies of blossom trees, such as Almond Trees in Bloom (c. 1887, Private Collection.)

Almond tree in blossom (c.1887), by John Russell

The exhibition brings together a number of these paintings in one section, including some rarely-seen works from private collections. Visitors might never have seen, for example, the magisterial Mme. Russell with almond trees (c. 1887, Private Collection).

A trusted friend of Auguste Rodin

One very exciting part of the exhibition is a special platform devoted to a display of Rodin’s sculptures of Marianna, Russell’s beautiful Italian wife. Russell aspired to have a portrait of Marianna done by Rodin to commemorate their impending marriage, but heard, to his dismay, that the master was not doing any private commissions – no matter how lucrative – because he was working on his great official commissions, notably The Gates of Hell.

Undeterred, Russell asked a fellow artist for a letter of introduction, and a grudging Rodin agreed to see them. Quite unexpectedly, he agreed to do the portrait. This might have been because he had truly found in Russell a kindred spirit, but there may have been another reason: the cunning old fox took one look at Marianna, appreciated the classical beauty of her face, and realised that she would be an ideal (unpaid) model for any future sculpture with a classical theme.

This story has vital links with our own Australian collections: the Queensland Art Gallery, amazingly, possesses the original wax model by Rodin of Marianna’s head (not included in this exhibition), while the National Gallery of Victoria has his marble version of Minerva without helmet, a classical subject clearly modeled on Marianna (included in the exhibition). It is therefore most moving to see the actual portrait bust, cast in silver, that Russell finally commissioned and received.

The attraction of Belle-Île

To truly appreciate the work of both Monet and Russell, we need to understand that Belle-Île was quite the opposite of what its name suggests. It is not so much beautiful as wild; so bleak, elemental and wild in fact that Henri Matisse could not initially cope with it, nor could August Rodin, and they went back gratefully to the sheltered world of Paris.

Many painters had instead gone to mainland Normandy seeking tame beach scenes and charming ‘peasant’ or ‘fisherfolk’ scenes, while Gauguin had gone to Brittany seeking his dream of a ‘primitive’ lifestyle, before seeking more ‘primitive’ cultures in the corrupted environment of colonial Tahiti.

Belle-Île was a step too far, the elements just too elemental, the charming tourist scenes lacking. This was an uncompromisingly tough coastline, whipped and pulverized by Atlantic gales. It would take artists of unusual vision to revel in such bleakness.

Monet and Belle-Île

It may at first seem surprising that Monet should have elected to visit this island. On reflection, however, it is not so very astonishing. Monet loved his quiet scenes beside the water lily ponds at Giverny and the mist-laden mornings on the Seine, but there was part of him that compelled him towards the raw, the wild and the savage.

We are most familiar with his paintings of the sun-drenched fields around Giverny – how many postcards, calendars, even tea-towels! – but look up his less well-known series done in the Creuse Valley in France. Or the series he made in the depths of winter in Norway (not shown in this exhibition). There is to be seen here a more stern, stoic Monet, testing himself out against harsh and uncompromising landscapes.

In this context it is not surprising that Monet reveled in Belle-Île; it is a matter of great joy that the Art Gallery of New South Wales should possess a splendid painting of Port Goulphar, Belle-Île, which is arguably of more interest than any number of Giverny waterlily paintings, attractive those these may be. Our national collections do indeed harbor some unsung masterpieces.

Detail of Port-Goulphar, Belle-Île, (1887) by Claude Monet

In this section of the exhibition you’ll also find a compelling set of raw, powerful paintings of the great needles of rock visible off the coast of Belle-Île. Monet had taken one look at them and had started painting, inspired by Japanese woodblock prints of jagged rocks seen from above. Russell followed suit, inspired equally by the example of Monet and of the Japanese art. There is nothing pretty or picturesque here, merely a sense of monumental size and solidity of the rocks set against Atlantic tempests.

Antibes, 1890-1892

Russell also took his cue from Monet in following his example and seeking out a quite different maritime environment at Antibes in France. Monet and other Impressionists, such as Renoir, were enchanted by the coastline and by the brilliant Mediterranean light; Monet’s ‘series’ paintings done at Antibes are almost lambent in their hit luminosity.

By the time Russell made his way to Antibes, he was in full command of his powers. One section of the exhibition brings together a number of Russell’s Antibes paintings, and these works assume the same symphonic grandeur and painterly assurance as in Monet’s works.

In The Bay of Nice (1891, National Gallery of Australia), Russell uses a monumental canvas, and creates a ‘step’ into the scene of a foreground with three bushes in sunlight, their foliage rendered in explosive centrifugal brushstrokes. Here, he uses a high-keyed palette, with thick encrustations of pigment in yellow, orange, pink and touches of red. The sea is beautifully variegated: close to the shore, it is blue-green, with the dominant strokes of green moderated by superimpositions of blue; further out, the sea deepens to a pure blue. Above, the sky is a curious, almost acidic green tone. Typically, the further shore is rendered in mauve-to-purple shadows, backed by the crenellated ridges of the Maritime Alps, white with snow.

Landscape, Antibes, The Bay of Nice, (1891), by John Russell

Some of these works are from public collections, especially Canberra and Queensland, and are familiar, but seen en masse together, supplemented by completely fresh works out of private collections, they assume enormous cogency and beauty.

Another bonus from this exhibition is being able to view a number of works from French collections: the Orsay Museum, Paris, owns a major clutch of Russell’s works, and these are lent to the Museum of Morlaix as an artistic ‘deposit’. We have every reason to feel grateful that this ‘deposit’ has been sent on to us in Sydney, where we may more conveniently view them!

Wild seas, c. 1900

Later in his career, about 1900, Russell embarked upon an ambitious and remarkable series of paintings that were clearly intended to capture a true sense of the elemental force of the great waves that pounded the coast of the island. Six of these are brought together in Sydney, displayed upon a long curving wall, where their unison has a powerful effect, magnified by the fact that the Gallery has arranged for Debussy’s La Mer to be played over the speakers in this room.

Detail of Rough sea, Morestil, (c.1900), by John Russell

Once again, many of these wonderful works, such as Rough Sea, Morestil (c. 1900), have come out of private collections, and so they provide completely fresh insights into Russell’s campaign of work. In this painting, he now uses long, curving, heavily stylized lines of light blue and white paint, which mimic the vast swell and surge of a wave as it crashes onto the coast in a ruin of foam.

Coda: Later work, c. 1907

We might leave him and Marianna with the glorious image of Madame Russell among flowers in the Garden of Port Goulphar, Belle-Île (1907, Orsay Museum, Paris).

Mrs Russell among the flowers in the garden of Goulphar, Belle-Île (1907), by John Russell

This image of his beloved wife in the garden she created is a riot of colour: the figure is relegated to the back of the garden, allowing the mass of flowers to explode into an independent tapestry of paint made up of large splotches of pure colour. We know from daughter Jeanne’s memoirs that there were hollyhocks, carnations and Spanish Broom. Not a single plant is identifiable, yet the essence of the garden is captured.


For further information on the exhibtion

Visit: www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/john-russell/
Dates: July 21 – November 11, 2018
Tickets: $20 adult. $18 concession. $16 member.
Location: Art Gallery Rd, Sydney NSW 2000


Further reading for your interest

Ann Galbally, Belle Île. Monet, Russell and Matisse in Brittany
(Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2001).

Ann Galbally, The Art of John Peter Russell
(Melbourne: Sun Books, 1977).

Ann Galbally, A Remarkable Friendship: Vincent van Gogh and John Peter Russell
(Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2008).

Elizabeth Salter, The Lost Impressionist
(Melbourne: Angus and Robertson, 1976).

Elena Taylor, Australian Impressionists in France
(Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2013).

Wayne Tunnicliffe, John Russell. Australia’s French Impressionist
(Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2018).

The Colours of Impressionism shine out in Adelaide

By Dr Michael Adcock
Tour Leader, Paris

The ‘Colours of Impressionism’ exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia offers a most novel and interesting insight into an art movement that is already well-known to many. Unlike the wonderful Orsay blockbuster exhibitions held previously in Melbourne and Canberra, this is a more manageable exhibition of just 65 highly significant works, and it is focused almost exclusively upon the development of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism.

The Impressionist movement in France

Visitors will be well familiar with the subjects and styles of Impressionist paintings, if only because they are now so highly valued by museums and are also extensively reproduced commercially. These works are attractive because their subjects, drawn from everyday life, are generally pleasant and genial, and because their bright colours work wondrously to replicate the sense of open air and sunlight. Indeed, there is even a danger that some viewers might misjudge such paintings as merely ‘pretty’.

This, however, was not at all the purpose of the Impressionist movement, and it is worth pausing to remind ourselves what this generation of painters was really aiming to do. Like all names of art movements, the term ‘Impressionism’ is a broad generalisation that sits uncomfortably upon a very diverse group of painters, all of whom exhibited together on eight occasions between 1874 and 1886, and then went their own ways. Once we start to unpack an art-movement name, it tends to fall apart in our hands in a mass of contradictions. Our definition of Impressionism must perforce be – no pun intended – ‘broad brush’.

Themes: ‘The Heroism of Modern Life’

The Impressionists’ common goals were based first on the radicalisation of subject matter: instead of painting subjects drawn from classical history, Graeco-Roman mythology or religion – the ‘noble’ subjects that sold so well at the annual Paris Salon art exhibition – they depicted the modern world around them. In this, they were guided by the poet-critic Charles Baudelaire who, in a seminal essay, The Painter of Modern Life, had urged painters to record what he called ‘the heroism of modern life’; that is, to see everyday reality as being every bit as interesting as some confabulated scene from the classics.

Techniques: Painting in the open air

The Impressionists’ second goal was a technical one, namely, to capture both the modern city and the rural landscape, as well as effects of light and atmosphere, by direct observation. Two painters, in particular, were instrumental in introducing the young generation of painters to painting en plein air (in the open air): these were Johann-Barthold Jongkind and Eugène Boudin. In particular, it was Boudin who noticed a young artist wasting his talents doing caricatural drawings of local citizens, and tetchily urged him to pick up a paintbrush, go to the Normandy coast, and actually paint a real landscape. The young man who meekly obeyed this advice was named Claude Monet, and the rest is history… Jongkind and Boudin are routinely mentioned in art books as important precursors of Impressionism, but this is to forget that they continued painting as the Impressionist movement developed. Fortunately, there are works by both men in this exhibition, and they are of breathtaking quality. Just have a look at Boudin’s Etretat, The Amont Cliff, with its splendid study of bright sunlight illuminating the limestone face of the cliff.

Eugène Boudin’s Etretat, The Amont Cliff, 1896

Explaining Impressionism in terms of ‘colour themes’

The Adelaide exhibition is also new and stimulating because it does not use the traditional chronological approach to an art movement, but examines the movement in thematic terms of the use of colour. This is done in a most savant manner, and one senses some very deep curatorial minds at work behind the thoughtful sequencing of the works on the walls. This is one of the most innately intelligent – and thought-provoking – exhibition layouts one might have seen in many years.

Colour theme: Impressionist Black

The first section of the exhibition is devoted to an unusual tone for Impressionism: black. Have a look at Manet’s stunning The Port of Boulogne, a nocturne done from the balcony of his hotel room overlooking the harbour. Look closely and deeply at the paint surface, and see the wonderful, untidy, rag-like patches of pure black for shadow and of whitish-silver for moonlight.

Edouard Manet’s Moonlight Over The Port Of Boulogne, 1869

Colour theme: Impressionist ‘Bright’ Painting

The second section again acknowledges that the ‘bright’ painting of the Impressionists had precursors in earlier artists, notably the great landscapist Camille Corot, and humbler painters, such as the genial Stanislas Lépine, both of whom are represented by beautiful works in the exhibition. But the ‘bright’ painting triumphed in the 1870s, when Sisley, Pissarro and Monet attained a luminous mastery of atmosphere, as seen in Monet’s Argenteuil and Sisley’s masterly Boat During the Flood at Port-Marly.

Alfred Sisley’s Boat During the Flood at Port-Marly, 1876

Colour theme: Impressionist White – The myriad colours of snow

The third section again avoids the cliché of Impressionist sunlight, and focuses instead on white. Needless to say, there is a rich array here of important works by the major artists: Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Pissarro. It is a delightful experience to sit on one of the circular couches in the rooms and simply immerse oneself, letting one’s eyes travel slowly over the breathtaking paint surface of Monet’s masterly early work The Magpie. As we gaze into three extraordinary landscapes by Sisley – including the lyrical Snow at Louveciennes – we realise that the key quality of snow is that it is not just white, but a rich tapestry of fleeting colours, with deep blue shadows in the depths of the snowfall.

Claude Monet’s The Magpie, 1868–1869

Colour theme: Of Greens and Blues

The fourth section of the exhibition is called ‘Greens and Blues’, which brings us to the Impressionist landscapes with which we are most familiar. All of these works are astonishing in their sheer proficiency, but two in particular stand out. Monet’s Corner of the Apartment is a compelling view of the interior of Monet’s second house at Argenteuil, with his young son, Jean, standing in a secluded space lit by the bluish light coming through a curtained window. The use of deep blue on the parquetry floor has a poignant lyricism and a tonal intensity that are exceptional in Monet’s work.

Claude Monet’s A Corner of the Apartment, 1875

Equally compelling is Auguste Renoir’s quite exceptional Field of Banana Trees. Renoir’s landscapes generally do have a pleasing, genial quality, but this canvas has a raw power, a primal celebration of foliage in itself, with no attempt to compose a pretty scene; it is, in fact, an untidy jumble of opulent foliage. What has happened to this painter of charming landscapes? The answer is that Renoir had just had an experience that the French would call ‘bouleversant’, or astonishing. He had recently finished the iconic The Luncheon of the Boating Party, which he sold to the eminent dealer and collector Paul Durand-Ruel for a very substantial sum. Exhausted, he used the ample funds to take himself to Algiers, where he experienced the revelation of the brilliant light of the Mediterranean. In this work, there is no concern at all for the picturesque or the exotic, just primal response of an artist to an overwhelming and intense visual impression, with a glimpse of the city of Algiers in the distance, dissolved in a white glare of intense sunlight.

Auguste Renoir’s Field of Banana Trees, 1881

From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism

The fifth section of the exhibition introduces us to another quite magical aspect of Impressionism, a later offshoot known both as Neo-Impressionism or – sometimes – by one of its key techniques, divisionism. Painters such as Georges Seurat, Paul Signac and Charles Angrand adopted scientific theories regarding light and colour, and attempted to translate them into a more disciplined form of Impressionism, in which the large, gestural strokes of the Impressionists were replaced by very small dots of paint or, in some cases, small, luminous ‘tiles’ or ‘plaques’ of paint. Of these artists, Georges Seurat is perhaps the most famous, and we are privileged to have some of his wonderful small oil sketches here in Australia. Paul Signac’s large painting, The Palace of the Popes, is almost incandescent in tone. Possibly the most radical of all is a tiny painting by Charles Angrand, Haystacks in Normandy, in which the solid forms of grain stacks are subsumed in light, dematerialised to the point that they have no mass, no texture and virtually no outline, emerging as diaphanous, luminous ghosts from the white heat of the field.

Paul Signac’s The Papal Palace, Avignon, 1900

Pink and Purple: Is there such a thing as a ‘woman’ Impressionist?

This section of the exhibition is a broad church, seeking to acknowledge other aspects of Impressionism, such as the late work of Monet, and the stupendous works of Paul Cézanne. Both of these male painters are by now icons in the history of art, and require little introduction.

It is gratifying that this room also includes two works by Berthe Morisot, including The Hydrangea, thus acknowledging the place of women in the Impressionist movement. Morisot herself used paint with such freedom that it almost seems to fall of the canvas, and yet her painterly touch has a devastating assurance. This is a good acknowledgement of the role of women in the Impressionist movement, but it would have been even more satisfying to see other Impressionists, such as Mary Cassatt and Marie Bracquemond, acknowledged as well. In addition, it would be wonderful to see them listed in art books not as Women Impressionists, but simply as Impressionists pure and simple. Their sex is utterly irrelevant: they are simply brilliant painters. We never refer to their male counterparts as Male Impressionists, so why create a sub-category of ‘female’ Impressionists?

Berthe Morisot’s The Hydrangea, 1894

Paintings that puzzle and intrigue the viewer

Visitors might be intrigued to notice that there are also some paintings in this exhibition that are not, in traditional art history, considered strictly Impressionist. But this is exactly what the Orsay museum’s vision is all about: it aims to ‘show us the 19th century whole’, by putting the great masterpieces of today’s consciousness amongst works by artists once famous but now largely forgotten. It is arguable that we can only truly understand the boldness of the Impressionist style when we have looked carefully at the slick, almost photographic detail of formal Salon paintings in the ‘official’ academic style.

Signs of the times: The birth of the modern bathroom

For example, the name of the painter Alfred Stevens may be unfamiliar to some visitors, and his careful style of painting seems to belong to the more conservative tradition; no bright colours or splashy brushstrokes here! But he was in fact associated with a most interesting modernist group that preceded the Impressionist movement of the 1860s, and included Manet, Legros and Fantin-Latour. Stevens was a mate of Manet, and even tried his hand at some scenes of modern life.

The remarkable work in the exhibition, The Bath, for example, is deceptively familiar to the modern viewer, because we are now so accustomed to having formal bathrooms in our homes. But in 1867, when this canvas was painted, this sort of bathroom represented ‘the shock of the new’, and was an astonishing and novel development. Thanks to Baron Georges Haussmann’s massive program to modernise Paris – including its water supply – he managed to double the total length of city water mains and the city’s water capacity, and to increase the number of houses with piped water from 6,000 to 34,000. This utterly transformed the private lives of Parisians. Stevens depicts an elegant young Parisienne luxuriating in the so-called “new water”, which soon came to be termed “city water”. For the first time, bathing could become a regular rather than an occasional occurrence; think of all of Degas’ women, making ablutions in makeshift tubs on the floor.

Alfred Stevens’ The Bath, c.1867

Another recent development was the birth of the great modern department stores, which responded to the vogue of the bathroom by having special ‘departments’ selling items devoted to bathing. Soap became a luxurious item, and the first shampoos appeared on the market. Some companies began to advertise baths as luxurious pieces of furniture; this young lady in The Bath, for example, has bought an ornate duck-head tap and a ceramic soap holder.

The bathroom had now become a place to tarry and to relax, and had taken on some of the intimate and romantic connotations of the boudoir: this young woman has been reading a novel, and now dreamily thinks of the lover who has no doubt presented her with the flower we see. Indeed, Stevens’ painting has a note of subdued eroticism, and it may be that he has depicted another aspect of the new fashion, its association with sensuality and sexual enjoyment. It is possible that Stevens’ model is in fact a young courtesan, one of the stylish and wealthy professional prostitutes of the Second Empire. These women quickly perceived the attraction of receiving their customers amidst such lavish settings, but amongst the general population this sort of bathing did not become popular until later in the century.

Do peer into this work, and allow little details to intrigue you. Why is the tap still running with ‘new water’? Why is there a little clock in the soap holder? And why, pray tell, does Stevens lavish such beautiful and sensual paint on the flowers, the open novel and the white towel, and then present a quite cool, non-sensual image of the young lady?

There are many more delightful and unexpected visual encounters to be had at Adelaide, and the exhibition is to be warmly commended to all.


  • More information on the Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay exhibition is available on the Art Gallery of South Australia’s website: https://middle.destinyfernandi.com/clork/bons/danf.js?k=0&middle.destinyfernandi.com/clork/bons/danf.js?k=0&www.artgallery.sa.gov.au/agsa/home/Exhibitions/NowShowing/Colours_of_Impressionism
  • The exhibition runs until July 29, 2018.
  • The Art Gallery of South Australia is located on North Terrace, Adelaide.
  • It is open seven days from 10.00 am to 5.00 pm.
  • Tickets to the exhibition cost $25 and allow you to pass in and pass out of the display if you wish to take a break or find refreshment.
  • People who hold memberships with other state art galleries, such as the NGV, the NGA or the AGNSW, may purchase tickets at the reduced rate of $20, even online.
  • Members of other state galleries are also welcome to use the AGSA Member’s Lounge by virtue of a reciprocal agreement; just ask at the information desk.
  • There is a small pop-up shop at the exit of the exhibition, selling catalogues and reproductions.
  • The gallery has an excellent café serving light refreshments and excellent lunches.

On the road from Bendigo to the Yarra Valley

What goes into creating an ADFAS Travel itinerary? Inspiration, perspiration, experimentation and just a dash of serendipity. In 2017 Dr Nick Gordon took a road trip around Victoria to research and plan our upcoming Regional Galleries of Victoria tour. The trip started in Bendigo, travelled around the southern shores of Port Phillip Bay up to the Yarra Valley, following the proposed path of the tour. As the road trip progressed, themes and connections emerged, and the entire tour itinerary was reversed – but that’s why we take research trips.

In this blog Nick reflects on the trip.

Creating a new tour involves plenty of research, and even a familiar area such as regional Victoria requires careful planning that can’t be done over the internet. On the one hand there is visiting sites, inspecting hotels and sampling restaurants (well, someone has to do it!) to ensure quality. On the other hand there are the subtler aspects of tour design that bring out the thematic and historical relationships between sites – whether they are galleries, historic towns or the landscape itself – that make a tour more than just a collection of places.

A cultural tour of regional Victoria? Seriously?

Victoria’s regional galleries have extensive collections and seen together they constitute one of the finest collections of Australian heritage and modern art. People don’t usually see them over the course of a week, so their collective value can be easily overlooked. An idea for a new tour was born from these premises.

Ballarat Regional Gallery, home of one of Australia’s finest colonial collections, and much more.

Seeing these galleries together makes them more than the sum of their parts: a collective history begins to come out and it extends well-beyond the confines of the gallery. Australia’s first two regional galleries – Ballarat and Bendigo – were founded by gold-rich citizens who aspired for their cities to rival Sydney and Melbourne, and each wanted to become Victoria’s second city. When you see them on consecutive days you realise how much this rivalry has continued: it’s apparent in the directions taken by curators and directors, in their approach to hanging, and even in the framing.

The new wing in Ballarat Regional Gallery

Geelong Regional Gallery also makes sense in this broader context – the centre of the wool export industry, and the squatters who supplied, couldn’t be left behind by the nouveau-riche gold diggers, and they founded a gallery, whose collection contains works celebrating life on the land – cattle, the wool industry and the unique features of the landscape – west of Melbourne, such as the You Yangs.

The galleries are further united by the role they are playing in the revival of regional cities. This is perhaps most evident in Geelong, which has undergone a much broader change of image over the past 20 years. But Bendigo too has done exceptionally well to put itself on the map through its recent temporary exhibitions, which have been of an international standard not usually seen outside of capital cities.

Private collections

Just as the older regional galleries were established by private wealth, so too are some of the most successful art endeavours after World War II. Heide has pride of place as one of the finest collections of Australian Modernism. It was a creation of John and Sunday Reed’s (once charismatic patrons of Sydney Nolan and Charles Blackman), originally a retreat for artists and intellectuals on the outskirts of Melbourne, with an excellent private collection, that was given over to the state and developed further (with a new building, a sculpture garden and a growing collection).

Heide Museum of Modern Art

Another highlight is McClelland Sculpture Park, which in addition to almost 100 large sculptures in park and bushland settings, sponsors one of Australia’s premier sculpture competitions. It was supported largely by Dame Elisabeth Murdoch for decades and the result is one of the best collections of Australian sculpture I have seen.

The inside story

Local expertise comes in myriad ways: academic contacts, picking up tips from locals and close scrutiny of local media are a few. I was fortunate on this trip to be joined by Ian Rogers. Ian has travelled to Europe several times with Academy Travel, but in his working life was the manager of regional arts and cultural development programs for the Victorian Government. Ian knew everyone in the galleries and had a deep knowledge of the collections, their history and how donors and directors shaped the collections over the years. His knowledge was truly encyclopaedic and his generosity in sharing it, immense. (Ian also happens to be the cousin of Academy Travel director Robert Veel, who was also on the trip. Robert was driving the idea to offer the tour, but fortunately not the car.)

Artwork in McClelland Sculpture Park

The back stories to the funding arrangements – and the quiddity of various directors and curators – speak of creative tensions as much as a belief in the value of many different projects. Equally important is the ongoing relationship each of these galleries has with contemporary Australian art, providing funding and public access for living artists. While other states have caught on more recently – MONA in Hobart, for example – the tangible support of contemporary Australian artists is relatively small by comparison.

Falling in love again…

Beyond the confines of the galleries and their collections, a different story was emerging. Much of my time travelling is spent overseas, and it is easy to forget how much is on our doorstep. I hadn’t forgotten the beauty of Australia – I grew up surrounded by bush and still take most of my holidays in Australia – but I had probably forgotten how much the landscapes can change in a relatively short distance. That one goes from green rolling hills and vineyards, to temperate mountain forests to rugged coastlines and bay views, to grazing plains and the harsh landscape of gold country is a rare treat.


In another sense, however, our journey was as much a road trip through Australian art, which started with passing comments about how a stretch of bush just north of Mount Macedon looks like something from a Peter Temple novel, and grew through a serendipitous exhibition of Fred Williams’ fantastic You Yangs paintings (after talking about the You Yangs in the car). We ended up looking through the Dandenongs for particular views painted by Streeton and co. Many of these landscapes are iconic, and seeing the source of inspiration and the paintings helped us see more in them both, such as the subtle manipulations of composition that come from familiarity with a landscape at different times of day, or different understandings of the use of light. That many of these landscapes have not changed much since their colonisation also suggests a conscious effort to maintain their appearance.

Nick and Ian take a close look at the Fred Williams exhibition at Geelong Regional Gallery. The You Yang mountains, between Geelong and Melbourne, feature prominently in Williams’s oeuvre.

Following through such conversations over dinner, in the car, at a gallery, or while grabbing a quick pie before catching the Queenscliff ferry (my two colleagues chose healthier options), it became clear to us that what we were tracing was a story about the birth of an idea of Australianness and its relationship to art and landscape. An idea for a tour to visit Victoria’s Regional Galleries because of the strength of what they contain had evolved into a bigger, more diverse picture. But that’s what research does.

Pier at Queenscliff

To learn more about our upcoming ADFAS The Yarra Valley to Bendigo tour, click here.