Australia’s Lost Impressionist – John Russell – revealed in new documentary film to be screened on ABC TV 30 Oct, 9.30pm

September 24, 2018

In by Dov Kornits

A new beautifully crafted documentary film reveals the close relationships and influence enjoyed by Australia’s lost impressionist, John Russell, within the French avant-garde in the late 1880s.
A new beautifully crafted documentary film reveals the close relationships and influence enjoyed by Australia’s lost impressionist, John Russell, within the French avant-garde in the late 1880s.

John Russell, the subject of a current major exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, changed the way the world sees colour…

Australia’s Lost Impressionist – John Russell will be screened on ABC TV, Tuesday, October 30 at 9.30pm and tells the fascinating story behind the only Australian artist at the centre of the Impressionist movement in France and how his famous friendships forever changed the way the world sees colour.

John Russell (1858-1930) painted in France alongside Claude Monet, he mentored Henri Matisse and was a close friend of Vincent Van Gogh. Russell exhibited at the1905 Salon d’Automne in Paris and his work entered the Louvre collection in 1949. Russell’s portrait of Van Gogh was purchased by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam in 1938 and is documented as Van Gogh’s favourite.

In 2017, director Catherine Hunter and cameraman Bruce Inglis travelled to Belle-Ile, the charming windswept island off Brittany where Russell lived for 20 years. This island is virtually unchanged since the 1800s. The beguiling coastline of Belle-Ile was a continual source of inspiration for Russell and his contemporaries.

This insightful documentary explores Russell’s intriguing life through the eyes of a new generation of Australian painters as they discover Russell for themselves. Highly respected contemporary artists Luke Sciberras and Euan Macleod travelled with Catherine Hunter to Belle-Ile and their impressions and inspired work feature in the film.

Russell was handsome, wealthy, debonair and being Australian, quite exotic in 19th Century France. Yet despite his own artistic accomplishments and his pivotal role in the development of modern art, his name and his art have been largely unrecognised outside rarefied art circles. This documentary, Australia’s Lost Impressionist – John Russell, explores his enormous legacy on 20th-century art through his paintings and his friendships.

Actor Hugo Weaving features as the voice of John Russell who was a prolific letter writer especially to fellow artists Vincent van Gogh, Auguste Rodin and Tom Roberts. The intimate correspondence between Russell and his fellow artists is captivating and at times heartbreaking.

Australia’s Lost Impressionist: John Russell features the music of composer David Bridie.  Across six studio albums with Not Drowning, Waving, and seven more with beloved, recently-retired group My Friend the Chocolate Cake, innumerable film and television soundtracks and five solo albums, ARIA award winning artist David Bridie has staked a claim as one of Australia’s most prolific and respected songwriters and composers.

Christopher Riopelle from London’s National Gallery, acclaimed author Sarah Turnbull and Head of Australian Art, Art Gallery of NSW and Russell exhibition curator, Wayne Tunnicliffe feature in the documentary together with the endearing voice of the great-granddaughter of Russell’s housekeeper together with a number of other international art scholars. Especially notable is acclaimed Matisse biographer Hilary Spurling who says Matisse always credited Russell with explaining colour theory to him.

Sarah Turnbull, author of Almost French and forthcoming book on Russell says:

His story has everything – the fabulous handsome hero, there’s the love affair with the beautiful woman Marianna, there are these exotic places, Paris and Belle-Ile, and then there’s tragedy.

Luke Sciberras, Australian contemporary artist comments: It always struck me from a very young age that this colourful and powerful artist wasn’t ever really celebrated in the broad sense. His life and work is illuminated with all the biographical ingredients for a wild ride of a story, exotic, sophisticated, rich and at once charged with the ‘rude energy’ of a robust and well-heeled Australian. Russell is a great portal through which we as Australians can view the lives of works of his European contemporaries, which may otherwise appear distant or historically remote.

Christopher Riopelle, Curator of Post-1800 Paintings at London’s National Gallery says:  It’s a moment for Australians to assess where he fits into Australian art but we outside of Australia have to figure out, analyse where he fits in the larger context of the international avant-garde in the years around 1900. He clearly plays a very big role that has been overlooked for too long.


Australia’s Lost Impressionist: John Russell will screen on ABC TV, Tuesday, October 30 at 9.30pm. The Art Gallery of NSW’s retrospective of Russell runs until November 11, 2018.


Catherine Hunter has covered the visual arts on Australian television since 1985. She was the Arts producer on the Nine Network’s Sunday program from 1985 to 2006. Since then, she has worked as a freelance director and producer. Her most recent productions include: Glenn Murcutt – Spirit of Place (2016); Trent Parke – The Black Rose (2015); Jeffrey Smart: Master of Stillness (2012); A Law Unto Himself (2012); Jenny Sages: Paths to Portraiture (2012); Inland Heart: The Photography of Jeff Carter (2012); Margaret OlleyA Life in Paint (2012) and Sidney Nolan – Mask and Memory (2009).  In 2017, Catherine was a finalist in the Walkley Documentary award with Glenn Murcutt – Spirit of Place, which also won the People’s Choice award at Archiflix Sydney and Melbourne. The Murcutt documentary was selected for the 2017 Chicago International Film Festival, the 2018 Palm Springs Architecture and Design Arts Film Festival and opened the 2017 New York Architecture and Design Film Festival. In 2018 it is also screening at festivals in Los Angeles, Washington DC, Athens, Copenhagen, Rotterdam, Seattle and New Orleans.

Commissioned by ABC Arts