Arts Everyday Living: Through the Eyes of Van Gogh’s Friends–Is This His Truest Portrait?

John Russell, Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, 1886, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

Title: Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, 1886


In honor of Australian Impressionist John Russell’s 166th birthday today, we are featuring his famous portrait of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) done in late 1886. Though Russell was just one of Vincent’s many friends, perhaps he understood the then 33 year old Dutch icon best. Revealing for posterity the intensity of Vincent’s  gaze, despite being turned sideways from the viewer. Looking back at us, wary of our presence while holding a brush  in his rather sketchily rendered hand? Do you sense that Vincent is about to speak? Or would he rather continue to remain silent, peering outward from the overall subdued palette of the canvas (darkened by age), except for the deep red of his beard and hair.*

Russell and Van Gogh had met earlier in the year, both foreigners in Paris,  then the creative center of avant garde art. Attending the class of painter-teacher Fernand Cormon, along with fellow students Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Emile Bernard. Stuggling to absorb the revolutionary use of color by Impressionists like Monet and Renoir or the unique pointillist technique of Georges Seurat.

Russell would leave the city first, moving to Belle-Ile, an island off the coast of France where he soon painted alongside Monet. While Vincent stayed until early 1888, when he would journey to Arles in the south of France. Yet, Russell’s portrayal of Vincent, which he would ultimately give to his Dutch friend, symbolizes the enduring bond between them that continued until Vincent’s death in 1890. Or as Vincent wrote in a letter to his brother Theo, take good care of my portrait by Russell which means much to me.**

Russell would survive Vincent by 40 years, dying in his birthplace of Sydney in 1930. Leaving a legacy of some extraordinary works, particularly his French seascapes of Belle-Ile and Antibes. Why not google John Russell and pay a special online visit to his collection in the National Gallery of Victoria.

*At one time, the words ‘Vincent in friendship’ were painted in red over Van Gogh’s head.

**The source for this blog is mainly the website of the Vincent van Gogh Museum.






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