A Remarkable friendship - Vincent Van Gogh & John Peter Russell


Left: John Peter Russell 'Mrs Russell among Flowers in the Bay of Goulphar' 1907    Right: Vincent Van Gogh 'The Red Vineyard', Arles 1888 

Left: John Peter Russell 'Mrs Russell among Flowers in the Bay of Goulphar' 1907    Right: Vincent Van Gogh 'The Red Vineyard', Arles 1888 


A Remarkable Friendship - Vincent Van Gogh and Australian artist John Peter Russell. By Ann Galbally.

In the Parisian spring of 1886 an unlikely friendship blossomed between two foreign students studying in a Montmartre atelier.  One a haunted, poor and intense Dutch newcomer, Vincent van Gogh and the other a handsome devil-may-care Sydneysider of independent means, John Peter Russell.

United in their disdain for Parisian sophistication and their veneration of the peasant as the true expressor of humanity, Van Gogh and Russell left the metropolis at separate times to work in isolation in the French countryside. In Provence, Arles, St Remy.  Yet even across the distance and the years and their shared artistic sensibility - particularly their attempts to understand and use colour as the single most important factor in their work ensured that their unlikely friendship prospered.

With a supporting cast including Monet, Gauguin, Rodin and Matisse, A Remarkable Friendship offers a unique insight into the struggles and failures, plots and intrigues of these significant defining artists and into artistic life in France in the late nineteenth century.

This fascinating book tracks the lives of both artists, following their friendship throughout their painting careers.  John Peter Russell, well liked wealthy son of a Scottish businessman and adventurer, felt little compunction for public approval of his works as opposed to Vincent’s abrasive unsociable personality that craved the artistic recognition he’d not receive during his lifetime.

They had many friends in common, Henri Matisse cited John Peter Russell as his introduction to impressionism and to the work of Van Gogh (who was relatively unknown at the time). Matisse’s style changed radically and he would later say ‘Russell was my teacher, Russell explained colour theory to me’.

Interestingly Van Gogh had not sold a single painting by his untimely demise at age 37 in 1890. His lifetime work of 500 paintings and 350 drawings had been stored in a shop and at his brothers apartment in Paris. Highly esteemed by his artistic contemporaries the public interest in Van Gogh only really gathered momentum after 1910, even at which time he was little known outside of the Netherlands, France and Germany. By the 1920’s the public demand for modernism had expanded and his work was actively collected, he was well on the way to becoming the popularised hero of artistic martyrdom.    

They both lived, painted and travelled extensively in Sicily and Provence during the height of their painting careers. A well known painting by John Peter Russell, a portrait and cherished gift of and to Van Gogh, hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Russell was also a lifelong friend of Tom Roberts, and Auguste Rodin who immortalised his wife, Marianne's beauty with the bust Minerve sans Casque.  Claude Monet often worked with Russell at Belle Ile (Russell's home) and influenced his style, though it has been said that Monet preferred some of Russell’s Belle Ile seascapes to his own. Due to his substantial private income Russell never attempted to make his pictures well known.

After the death of his beloved wife Marianna, John Peter Russell destroyed over 400 of his own paintings. Rodin despaired at the destruction of ‘those marvels’ and in one of his final letters to Russell said ‘your work will live, I am certain. One day you will be placed on the same level with our friends Monet, Renior and Van Gogh'. Though it was not to be, he wandered aimlessly throughout Switzerland, Italy and France before finally returning to Australia in the late 20’s where he bought a harbourside house in Sydney’s Watsons Bay. At the time of his death in 1930 their was little reciprocal interest between the local art community and John Peter Russell who now is recognised as a preeimenent early modern Australian painter. 

TIKI TOURS  Country Roads France tour includes a fascinating visit to Arles and the monastery/asylum in St-Remy de Provence  where from May 1889 Vincent Van Gogh voluntarily spent one year after cutting off part of his ear in Arles, quite probably one of the most difficult years of his life yet also one of his most prodigious creatively.  To view paintings in particular from his time in Saint-Remy and Arles we recommend visiting the  comprehensive online collection at