National Gallery, London
This show comes alive when the rugged spirit of Australia’s very own impressionists, at home and in Europe, is fully unleashed
There is a portrait in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, that shows the Dutchman in dark clothes, brush in hand, looking sharply over one shoulder. The encounter is intimate and intense. Friends thought it by far the best likeness, and Van Gogh himself treasured the portrait, asking his brother, Theo, to take special care of it in the last months of his life.
Some years ago, conservators uncovered an inscription on the canvas: “For Vincent, in friendship.” The friend was not some fellow European painter but an athletic Australian named John Peter Russell. Russell had given up engineering for art in 1881, leaving Sydney for London and eventually Paris, which is where he came across Van Gogh. He also formed strong relationships with Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Sisley and Matisse during his 30 years in France. Madame Sisley reads a letter on a river bank in one of Russell’s French impressionist paintings.