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Off the Wall: A blaze of sunlight

Arts & Culture

John Russell’s 1891 painting A Clearing in the Forest is back on display at the Art Gallery of SA following its inclusion in a major international exhibition, where new light was shed on the vibrant work.

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Off the Wall

While it was at the Australia’s Impressionists show at the National Gallery in London, research by collaborating curator Wayne Tunnicliffe identified A Clearing in the Forest as one of the artist’s rare and important renderings of the French Mediterranean landscape of Antibes.

In the winter of 1890-91, Sydney-born Russell wrote to his Australian contemporary Tom Roberts with reference to “a blaze of sunlight” that blankets all of Antibes. He also sent to the artist three sketches, the second of which is a preparatory study for A Clearing in the Forest.

Russell, who was crossing France in a horse-drawn cart, decided to stay in the ancient seaport to see out the cooler weather and to experiment with his understanding of French Impressionism.

He explained to Roberts: “…as understood here it (Impressionism) consists not of hasty sketches but in pushed work in which the purity of color & intention is kept”.

A Clearing in the Forest reveals the painterly characteristics of French Impressionism as practised by Russell under the guidance of Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet: the high horizon line, visible square-brushwork and layered arrangements of luminous and vibrant colour.

Although his approach to Impressionism was similar to that of his French contemporaries, Russell’s early use of bold colour was unique and its purity vividly defines the form and composition of this otherwise humble forest scene.

He was captivated by the rich hues of the Antibes landscape, and it was with works like A Clearing in the Forest that the artist came to be at the forefront of formal developments in contemporary international painting.

John Russell (1858-1930), A Clearing in the Forest, 1891, oil on canvas, 61.0 x 55.9cm, AM & AR Ragless Bequest Funds 1968, Art Gallery of South Australia.

Elle Freak is assistant curator of Australian Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Gallery of South Australia. This article is the latest in a regular series, Off the Wall, highlighting the Art Gallery of South Australia’s lesser-known treasures.

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