John Russell (Painter) - Encyclopedia

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JOHN RUSSELL (1745-1806), British portrait painter in pastel, was born at Guildford, Surrey. At an early age he entered the studio of Francis Cotes, R.A., from whom he derived his artistic education, and set up his own studio in 1767. Russell was a man of remarkable religious character, a devout follower of Whitefield. He began an elaborate introspective diary in Byrom's shorthand in 1766 and continued it to the time of his death. In it he records his own mental condition and religious exercises, entering with a certain morbid ingenuity into long disquisitions, and only occasionally recording information concerning his sitters. His religious life is the key to his complex character, as it actuated his whole career. He obtained the gold medal at the Royal Academy for figure drawing in 1770 and exhibited from the beginning of the Academy down to 1805. He was the finest painter in crayons England ever produced, and although he painted in oil, in water-colours and in miniature, it was by his works in crayon that his reputation was made. He wrote the Elements of Painting in Crayon, and described in it his method. He made his own crayons, blending them on his pictures by a peculiar method termed "sweetening." This he carried out with his fingers, rubbing in the colours and softening them in outline, uniting colour to colour so accurately that they melt into one another with a characteristic cadence. His pastel work is to oil painting "what the vaudeville is to the tragedy or the sonnet to the epic." His colours were pure and his blending so perfect that no change is to be seen in his works since they were executed. Sir Joseph Banks, writing in 1789 respecting his portraits of the president, of Lady, Mrs and Miss Banks, stated that "the oil pictures of the present time fade quicker than the persons they are intended to present, but the colours made use of by Russell will stand for ever," and in that prophecy is so far justified.

An important picture by him hangs in the Louvre ("Child with Cherries"), and two, including "The Old Bathing Man at Brighton," are owned by the crown. At the Royal Academy, of which he was a member, he exhibited three hundred and thirty works, and his portraits were engraved by Collyer, Turner, Heath, Dean, Bartolozzi, Trotter and other prominent engravers. Russell received warrants of appointment to the king, queen, prince of Wales and the duke of York. He was interested in astronomy, a friend of Sir W. Herschell, and no mean mathematician. He drew an exceedingly accurate map of the moon, and invented a piece of complicated mechanism for exhibiting its phenomena, publishing a pamphlet, illustrated by his own drawings, describing the apparatus.

Two of his sons inherited their father's talent, and one of them, William (1780-1870), exhibited five fine portraits in the Royal Academy.

See George C. Williamson, John Russell (London, 1894).

(G. C. W.)

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