John RUSSELL, not titled [Flame tree, Sydney Harbour in the background]. Enlarge 1 /1


Darlinghurst, New South Wales, Australia 1858 – Randwick, New South Wales, Australia 1930

  • England 1880-84, France 1884-1912, Switzerland and Italy 1912-15, England 1915-21, Australia from 1921

not titled [Flame tree, Sydney Harbour in the background]. 1921 Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, watercolours, painting in watercolour over underdrawing in black pencil Support: paper

Primary Insc: Signed and dated upside down lower right in coloured black pencil, 'JR / XXI'. Signed lower centre in black pencil, 'Russell'.
Dimensions: sheet and image 25.0 h x 31.0 w cm sight 24.2 h x 30.3 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1976
Accession No: NGA 76.471
  • Mrs Dorothy Russell ?-1976

In 1921, John Peter Russell returned to Sydney after 40 years in Europe and produced many vibrant watercolours, such as Flame tree, Sydney Harbour in the background. He painted in bold fauvist colours of contrasting orange reds and lime greens, the bright intense colours that were made possible by mixing the paints himself. He painted with rapid gestures that derive from Impressionism, but with an energetic, ‘unruly’, vigorous approach that veers towards Expressionism. In these works he found his own voice.

In Europe, Russell had known and worked with artists such as Matisse, Monet and van Gogh. He had shared van Gogh’s enthusiasm for the primacy of colour, and encouraged Matisse’s delight in bold hues. However, when Russell returned to Australia, the country was hostile to European art and to returning expatriates. Reactionary critics and artists wanted to restrain modernism in Australia, and referred to it as ‘ugly forms ... presented in an ugly way’.1 Within this environment, Russell’s brightly coloured images stood out as innovative. Although there were numerous artists who worked in a modernist fashion in Sydney at this time, such as Roy de Maistre, Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor and Roland Wakelin, they were more interested in a formalist modernism than the impressionist–expressionist approach Russell adopted. Proctor, who was Russell’s cousin, made efforts to promote his art but could not get others to appreciate its remarkable vitality and freedom as it was too radical for Australia at this time. He had to wait until the 1970s for his achievements to be reviewed and appreciated, when research and publishing on Australian artists was revitalised, when there was a renewed interest in art on paper, and when contemporary artists were painting in strong colour and using bold gestures.

Anne Gray

1Margaret Preston, ‘Wood-blocking as a Craft’, Art in Australia, third series, no.34 (Oct-Nov 1930): pp.27-35 (p.27)

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002