Discuss the techniques that make this John Russell painting an impressionist work.
John Russell, In The afternoon, 1891, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, oil on canvas, 65.1 x 65.4cm
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John Russell (1858- 1920) was a relatively unknown impressionist artist who is now referred to as “Australia’s Lost French Impressionist” (Tunnicliffe, 2018). Born in Darlinghurst, Sydney, he moved to Paris to study art and worked alongside Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh. His works reflect the brushstrokes, light and colour theories that are seen in Monet’s and Van Gogh’s paintings, placing him amongst the small group of mostly French artists who became known as the Impressionists.
When Russell first left Australia in 1881 he enrolled in an art school in London where he studied for several years. In 1884 he moved to Paris, the artists’ mecca at the time, where young artists went to learn from the masters as well as experiment with new styles and techniques. He studied under the watchful eye of academic artist Cormon (Fernand-Anne Piestre) in Montmartre where he met lifelong friends Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh (Tunnicliffe, 2018). During these years he discovered the delight of colour theory and a new, looser, brighter treatment of paint (Galbally, 1977). The restrictions of academic teaching began to stifle him and he yearned to escape the city to gain freedom in his art methods. He was “notoriously shy about exhibiting his work and his comfortable financial position exempted him from having to expose himself in this way” (Margin, 2016). There was nothing keeping him in Paris so he and his wife moved to Belle-Ile where he was able to study and experiment with this impressionist technique.
“In the Afternoon” (1891, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney) is a brilliant example of impressionist work using colour theory. The Impressionists were known for particular characteristics in their work, namely modern everyday scenes and landscapes, bright colours, visible brushwork, “movement” in the paintings and employing the colour theory to create images rather than mixing colours to fill well defined lines.
At first glance, “In the Afternoon” hits the viewer with vibrant, unusual colours and short dramatic brush strokes. Russell’s focus was on colour. Some Impressionists chose to mix their colours for desired effect but some, like Russell and Monet, preferred to play with colour and use complementary colours to create effects. He didn’t want to lose the brilliance of his colours that sometimes happens with mixing (Margin, 2016). A short selection of his works reflects signs of Japanese influence as some of the other impressionists seem to with linear outlines, but mostly he relied completely on blocks of colour to create form. The foreground of this painting has been completely covered in madder (deep red) and a layer of yellow applied over top, together creating a yellow/orange earth and sunlight. Red is visible through the yellow coat in many places, giving a more vibrant sun touched appearance. In the foreground we see blue on top of and next to the madder, creating purple shadows, which stand out beside the green furrows of the field. Paula Dredge (2018, Chasing after broken colour, p. 139) says he was “driven by the problem of how to represent the interaction between sunlight and nature” in paint on his canvas. He preferred to layer colour rather than mixing in white in order to keep the contrasting light and dark correct. To do this, he was known to carry a white handkerchief which he held up as a reference (Dredge, 2018, p. 139). In this painting we see the juxtaposition of orange fields next to a strip of bright blue sea, emphasising the blue. In the sky we see the layering effect of colours, with a blue layer, then a yellow over top creating a wonderful greenish hue. Russell has used complimentary colours as seen in the bright yellow trees standing out against the various blues of the sea, mountains and sky. This use of colour is a clear example of his outstanding knowledge of colour theory.
Another characteristic of the impressionists is the visibility of brush strokes. The traditionalists blended and smoothed their paints so there was a gradual move from one shade to the next, with thin layers of paint and no brush marks. In contrast this new style had a messy, unfinished look about it and the paint thickly laid in an impasto style. However, it is these brush strokes and thick layers of paint that give the work an alive feel, as if the grass and trees are blowing in the breeze and a moment has been captured on the canvas. The effect of the sunlight spreading across the field also has a feel of a moment captured, as if the shadows are rapidly encroaching. Impressionists were known for painting in the late afternoon to capture the effect of the light changing each scene as the sun sets.
The subject matter of the painting also tells us that this is a modernist painting by one of the “radical Impressionists”. Traditional artists predominantly painted in studio settings, creating their motif in a controlled environment. Even landscapes were created with preliminary sketches outdoors and finished in the studio from memory and notes (Wooden, 1994). However, modern artists painted contemporary life and landscapes. The artists had no control of what the environment looked like, and painted it so. They painted public scenes of people going about their daily business, both workers and socialisers, as well as landscapes without people for the subject. “In the Afternoon” is a scene of the here and now, not a piece with a narrative and history, as was the preference for topics in the mid to late 1800’s. For the Impressionists “there is no story, no moral, no plot or stage direction; there is simply an optical event, an arrested moment, in which lighted shapes of one kind or another participate” (Gardner, Tansay, & Croix, 1975, p. 694). The scene hasn’t been made to look smooth and perfect and there are no fine and precise lines or edges. There’s a general softness in the whole treatment of the scene.
Painting en plain air, or outdoors, was a common trait of the impressionists as they attempted to capture the light of a certain moment. They painted alla prima, which meant layering wet paint on wet paint, as the works were often painted in one sitting and therefore there was no time to wait for layers to dry (Schmahmann, 2011).
In keeping with the focus on colour rather than line and shape, we see colour bounced and reflected back and forth on objects in this scene. The greens of the sky are picked up again in spots on the field and on the mountains. Similarly, the mountains reflect the brilliant blue sea and the late afternoon sun glows yellow on trees, field and clouds alike. The resultant effect is of soft afternoon sunlight playing on the fields and trees and giving a glistening appearance to the snow topped mountains.
Like Monet, Russell often painted the same scene repeatedly in order to capture the myriad of different effects from the light (Tunnicliffe, 2018, p. 53). The views at Belle-Ile changed so dramatically with the light and the weather that the scenes could easily be mistaken as different localities. Russell’s focus was directed towards light and colour, rather than a specific subject. The colour was primarily his subject (Margin, 2018).
“In the Afternoon” has no specific object to focus on yet the painting draws attention straight to the colour of the field, the yellow trees and the dazzling mountains. Typical of other impressionists’ styles, the angle for the viewer is unusual, almost elevated at the foreground. Yet the eye is definitely led gently from the intrigue of the oddly coloured shadow in the foreground to search further into the distance. The visual focus is on the trees, both yellow and bare, and the mountains, which even the sky seems to reach toward in the distance; yet they are the palest, least formed object in the picture.
Russell’s work shows all the characteristics of the impressionist painters of the time. His choice of pure colours, broad visible brush strokes and ability to capture light in moments of time are cleverly knitted together to form a luminescent visual delight.
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