A Problem with Purity
John Peter Russell Vue d' Antibes 1891oil on canvas, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail
Yellow is a difficult color, fugitive as mimosa that sheds its dusty pollen as the sun sets.
Derek Jarman, Chroma, 1994
Why don't some scientific chaps invent purer and more puissant colors.
J.P. Russell letter to Tom Roberts, Winter 1890-911 (Russell's first visit to Antibes)
If John Russell ever succeeded in breaking out of a juste-milieu approach, consisting of a high keyed naturalism, and the decorative colouring up of his rustic subject matter, it would have been at Cap d'Antibes in the winter of 1890-91. He arrived under the fresh inspiration of the revelations of light from Claude Monet's recent paintings of the area, and was enraptured by the landscape of the French Mediterranean Peninsula .
Look at this... Old Rocky garden 350 feet above sea level. Cacti, Tamarisk, olives, giant geraniums needs old pots yellow. Sea a mighty blaze of blues, green puple opalescent lights distant snow covered alp. Tender green and rose sky. Over all a blaze of sunlight. And yet folks talk of finish.2
In Antibes with Monet as his guide, Russell succeeds in producing some of the most dazzling canvases of his career, almost freeing his colour from the restraints of naturalistic form - the culmination of a long battle within himself over style, and the most appropriate method of representation.
'Colour never became a sole or even separate pursuit for him ... but became, along with rustic subject matter, one of the twin spearheads of his thrust towards what he came to consider essential in art.'3
He had first to shake free of his old Slade master, Alphonse Legros's insistence on the importance of draughtsmanship and form evoked through a deliberate and graphic shading method. In 1888 Russell is still under the sway of a classic emphasis of line before colour and the pre-eminence of form. In a letter to Vincent van Gogh, Russell's criticisms of Monet are revealing of his own approach.
Before I left Paris I lunched with M Rodin and M Claude Monet, saw ten of Monet's pictures done at Antibes. Very fine in color and light of a certain richness of envelop. But like nearly all the so called Impressionists work the form is not enough studied. The big mass of form I mean. The trees too much wood in branches for the size of the trunk and so against fundamental law of nature. A lack of construction everywhere.4
To his brother Theo, van Gogh wrote in response that: 'from the standpoint of lots of natural laws [Russell] is exasperating enough'.5 He is uncomfortable with the way a colouristic response gravitated inevitably towards the decorative and non- naturalistic, demanding a plastic treatment of form.
detail showing lower left hand side of painting more detail
Camille Pissarro's dictum that 'true drawing is modelling with colour' was one that Russell did not adopt readily. However, in Vue d'Antibes Legros's teachings are noticeable only by their absence as the landscape dissolves into a shimmering irridescence of light and colour. Here Russell had found the conviction to pursue pure colour. He now saw himself as part of
a mighty revolution in art. The gropers after truth. Men who are searching things for themselves, searching to render what they see and not what they know to exist are throwing out most old time conventions as to the rules of composition, sentiment, colour, and they are drfting towards what is best in Impressionism. As understood here it consists not of hasty sketches but in finished work in which the purity of color and intention is kept.6
The breakthrough in approach Russell had wrestled to achieve was simultaneously a struggle over materials and technique.
Impressionistic use of colour required two vital things: firstly, the bright new range of pigments that modern industry was producing resting on advances in chemistry and the development of recently discovered ores such as chromium and cadmium; secondly, it demanded a manner of paint application which brought out the full intensity of those colours.
In Vue dAntibes, Russell employs a technique of rapidly overlaying loose strokes of highly pigmented paint in a criss-cross style, creating an open weave tapestry of what he called 'cobwebs' of broken colour. Close study of the painting under magnification shows that rather than working 'wet in wet'7 and risking a muddying inmixing of colour, a series of layers has been scumbled dry one over another in a rich textured crust.
This required a fairly prolonged period of drying, certainly a couple of days between each application. The final image was therefore not achieved in a single plein-air flourish, but if truly an outdoor work then Russell as Monet - would have had to return to, the same spot at the same time of day on at least three or four occasions.
Monet for instance will put 10 or 12 cuttings on a canvas. Very hard to keep colour pure and get it broken. Am now trying long hog tools and a pot of turps alongside to keep 'em clean.8
Russell understood that keeping the colours clean was not simply a matter of handling and application, but involved close attention to the paint itself. He complains about the adulteration of paint (which had recently been made available ready prepared in convenient collapsible lead tubes, replacing the old pigs' bladders) by dryers and cheap extenders.
So I have been experimenting. Making my own color with more or less success. I am now inclined to favour the grinding.., of color with oil to which is added more or less amber varnish according to the drying... qualities of different colours.9
Russell had even gone to the length of buying the expensive new pigment cadmium yellow, using it early in the painting, thickly underpainting the intended foreground in broad strokes of the instensely bright pigment.
Pure cadmium sulphide is a yellow pigment of high chroma and would seem to have been the ideal choice for Russell to produce the 'overall blaze of sunlight' he desired. Included in J.G. Viberts's (1891) 'list of colours which may be used with a perfect certainty'10 it was consistently used by Monet in preference to the 'dreadful chromes' which he spoke of having a tendency to fade and discolour in polluted sulphurous atmospheres. Unfortunately a similar fate seems to have befallen the cadmium of Vue dAntibes.
Though nowadays it is a very stable pigment, early production of cadium yellow was by no means perfect11 and William Holman Hunt noticed that 'Cadmium indeed at the very best is very capricious, and if trustworthy, as many good authorities declare it to be, it is only so when exceptional care is spent on its preparation.'12 Grinding up his own paint in the quest for pure colour, Russell has apparently failed to adequately disperse the reactive pigment and lock it into the protection of the binding medium. Microscopic cross-sections show the incomplete mixing of cadmium yellow with a highly fluorescent varnish, possibly the amber varnish mentioned in Russell's letter.13
'Vue des Maritime' Transmitted light through this thin cross section shows transparent layers of varnish within the paint layers. If this is the 'amber varnish' mentioned in Russell's letters, it can be seen to have been poorly mixed.
The powdery underbound pigment has been vulnerable to chemical attack by atmospheric gases and pollutants as well as by other pigments, extenders and impurities. Lead and copper based pigments are the main source of incompatibility with cadmium yellows, resulting in the formation of black sulphides, leading to grey, green or brown discolouration.14 Particularly problematic was the highly poisonous arsenic containing pigment, emerald green. A contemporary author pointed out that: 'the cadmium yellows act with great energy upon some of the pigments containing heavy metals. Emerald green, for example, is rapidly ruined by cadmium sulphide, both in water and in oil; cadmium yellow and emerald green are absolutely incompatible.'15 Despite its toxicity and the disparagement of some commentators, vert Véronèse,'16 as it was called, was nevertheless greatly prized by the Impressionists. 'The attraction must have been its uniquely vibrant colour, sometimes seen in Impressionist outdoor painting of the highest key, and a hue virtually impossible to obtain with any straightforward pigment mixture.'17 Although Hunt (1880) refers to the rapid darkening of cadmium yellow by emerald green as 'a well known misalliance', analysis by electron microscopy shows that Russell has used the two pigments together extensively and with the inevitable disastrous results. A complex series of reactions has left areas of the foreground erupting, dulled and discoloured by a coating of reaction products, scarred by losses, and highly unstable.
It is also interesting that Russell's Vue des Alpes Maritimes (National Gallery of Australia), painted contemporaneously, but against the artist's intention subsequently varnished, is in far better condition, possibly in part due to the protection from atmospheric pollutants afforded by the resin layer. The resin (badly yellowed through age) was recently removed, revealing once again the full force of Russell's colour, but exposing its potentially reactive pigments to the air. It was Russell's quest for purity which led to the brilliance of Vue d'Antibes and simultaneously to its steady disintegration. Further work will be required to arrest and even reverse this process, and to ensure that Alpes Maritimes can be protected from the same fate.
Acknowledgements: The author thanks particularly Paula Dredge for her thoughts and for making freely available the valuable results of her earlier researches; also Kim Brunoro for assistance, and Bruce Moore for photography.
2. Tom Roberts papers, Mitchell Library, SLNSW A2480, vol.3, Miscellaneous: John Peter Russell utters to Tom Roberts, 1890-91
3. A. Galbally, The Art ofJohn Peter Russell Melbourne: Sun Books, 1977, p.68.
4. Several letters between van Gogh and Russell are reproduced in The Compl.ete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London : Thames & Hudson, 1958.
5. Vincent van Gogh -utter to Then van Gogh, quoted in Galbally (1977), p.73.
6. Russell - utters to Tom Roberts, SLNSW
7. The technique used by Russell in Vue de Ia Seined Bougival (National Gallery of Australia ).
8. Russell - Lorters to Tom Roberts, SLNSW
10. Bomford, Kirby, Leighton and Roy, Art in the Making: Impressionism. London/New Haven: The National Gallery/Yale University Press, 1990.
11. see Robert L. Feller (ed.) Artists' Pignsencs: A handbook of their History and Characteristics. Washington DC : National Gallery of Pitt, 1986.
12. quoted in Feller (1986).
13. see Paula Dredge, 'John Russell: A study of his impressionist technique', in The Articulate Surface, Canberra : Humanities Research Centre/National Gallery of Australia , in press.
14. Feller (1986).
15. A.M. Church , The Chemistry ofPaino and Paincing. London : Seeley and Co. Ltd, 1892.
16. The green Russell described in a letter to Tom Roberts as 'Paolo Veronese' is therefore emerald green. His other chosen green, the cold transparent viridian was known in French, confusingly, as verc emeraude.
17. Bomford, Kirby, Leighton and Roy (1990).
First published in artonview 6 winter 1996