Documentary on a forgotten Australian artist

Wentworth Falls film-maker Catherine Hunter has produced a documentary on one of Australia’s foremost but forgotten painters, John Russell.

Russell formed a strong friendship with Vincent Van Gogh, painted beside Claude Monet, mentored Henri Matisse and regularly corresponded with Auguste Rodin and Tom Roberts.

Ms Hunter said while she knew of Russell and his impact on the Impressionists of late 19th century France, “most people in Australia don’t seem to know him”.

Russell was born in Sydney in 1858, enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and later moved to Paris to study at Atelier Cormon in the artistic milieu of Montmartre.

He eventually settled on a little island, Belle-Ile, off the coast of Brittany, where he spent 20 years painting and meeting some of the foremost figures of the Iimpressionist movement.

Russell exhibited at the 1905 Salon d’Automne in Paris and his work entered the Louvre collection in 1949.

His portrait of Van Gogh was purchased by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam in 1938 and is documented as Van Gogh’s favourite.

Ms Hunter went to Belle-Ile during the making of her documentary.

“The island is virtually unchanged since Russell was there,” she said. “It has beautiful little white Breton houses, windy lanes and those wonderful cliffs.”

Wayne Tunnicliffe, who curated a retrospective on John Russell for the Art Gallery of NSW, described it as “one of the last surviving Impressionist places”.

The documentary explores Russell’s intriguing life through the eyes of a new generation of Australian painters. Luke Sciberras and Euan Macleod travelled with Ms Hunter to Belle-Ile and their impressions and inspired work feature in the film.

Actor Hugo Weaving provides the voice of John Russell.

Ms Hunter has worked in arts television for many years. 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 documentary, Glenn Murcutt – Spirit of Place, was a finalist in the Walkley awards in 2017.

She actually started her education at Blackheath Public School but subsequently moved around the country, thanks to her father’s work with the army.

She moved back to the Mountains in 2010 and settled in Wentworth Falls.

Ms Hunter’s film is timed to coincide with a retrospective of Russell at the Art Gallery of NSW (showing until November 11).

Australia’s Lost Impressionist – John Russell will screen on ABC TV on Tuesday, October 30 at 9.30pm.