What is Australia’s most famous painting?


If you ask the man in the street, the most likely answers are going to be Tom Roberts’ Shearing the Rams, 1890 at the NGV, or his Bailed up, 1895, Art Gallery of NSW or Frederick McCubbin’s Down on his luck, 1889, Art Gallery WA, and the 20th century doesn’t even get a look-in. But what about this portrait of Vincent van Gogh by our very own John Peter Russell?

We spoke with Teio Meedendorp, researcher at the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, who allowed us a rare glimpse behind the scenes and the story of Australia’s unacknowledged most famous painting.

John Peter Russell, Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh

Much has been written about this expatriate impressionist with the now illustrious friends and acquaintances he made when living in France from the 1880s onwards, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin. Russell’s Belle-isle paintings now regularly sell for well over $500,000. His highest auction price was for Two Boys on the Beach which sold for $ 1.8 million incl. buyer’s premium in May 2007 at Sotheby’s. In May 2011, although it was offered again for sale with greatly reduced estimates of $400,000-600,000, it passed in on the night and reputedly sold after the auction with a loss of more than $1 million.

Getting to see Russell’s painting of van Gogh up close and personal was going to be an extraordinary treat. Teio Meedendorp pointed out that this was an extremely important painting in the museum collection which holds 200 paintings, 500 drawings and 700 letters by van Gogh .

Even though van Gogh painted numerous self portraits, there are hardly any images of him by other artists or for that matter even a photograph, as he hated being photographed. There is only one confirmed photograph of Vincent in adult life – with his back turned to the camera, so his face is not visible, and only three portraits painted by the artist’s contemporaries Paul Gauguin, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and John Peter Russell, all now in the van Gogh museum collection. Gauguin’s portrait shows a weary, sick man, Lautrec’s pastel is a profile, and Russell’s painting alone has the famous artist looking straight at the viewer.

Today, even the van Gogh specialists believe the Russell portrait to offer the best likeness of Vincent. It is documented that van Gogh liked this work very much, and recent research unveiled the dedication Vincent – JP Russell – Pictor – Amitie – Paris 1886.* Russell gave it to van Gogh and got in exchange a painting Three pairs of shoes. The portrait passed down the van Gogh family, from his brother Theo to Theo’s widow and then their son William Vincent van Gogh who gifted the entire collection to the state.

It seems that the portrait was at one time much lighter, with the darkening over time making it look much more academic than it really is, as Teio Meedendorp remarked. He pointed out the hints of impressionism in Russell’s van Gogh portrait, similarly to how van Gogh’s style was about to change in Paris.

There are no immediate plans to restore the work. It is exhibited regularly at the van Gogh museum, in particular when it is used as a document to van Gogh’s life.

In September this year, the only true image of van Gogh will leave storage and travel to Japan as the van Gogh museum is closing while undergoing refurbishment – affording a chance closer to home to see what perhaps should be known as Australia’s most famous painting.

* Watch the van Gogh museum video with researcher Teio Meedendorp and Devi Ormond, conservator, discussing the portrait of Vincent van Gogh by John Peter Russell.

Article originally published in the Australian Art Sales Digest

Written by

Hi, my name is Brigitte Banziger and I am an art consultant and manager at Banziger Hulme Fine Art Consultants, Australia's art valuation and art advice experts. We specialise in art valuations for insurance purposes, for family division, deceased estates, superannuation funds and market values, and advise clients regarding purchase and sales of art (art brokerage). Our services are sought by private clients, companies, public galleries and councils alike. Our aim is to provide professional service with friendly, approachable manner.

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