Impressionist Russell’s Souvenir tops $11m-plus sale

Elizabeth Fortescue, Australian Financial Review, 2 August 2023

If any painting can set a new auction record for Australian Impressionism, Chris Deutscher believes it’s among the 67 eclectic artworks he will put under the hammer in Melbourne at an aggregated estimate between $10.8 million and $15.3 million.

The undoubted star of Deutscher and Hackett’s August 16, 2023 auction in Melbourne is John Peter Russell’s Souvenir de Belle-Île, 1897. The work’s estimate is $1.5 million to $2.5 million. The vendor is a direct descendant of the original owner, a politician and close friend of Russell’s called Dr William Maloney.  

Rare and desirable though it may be, Souvenir de Belle-Île will need to work hard if it’s going to trounce the current high for an Australian Impressionist work at auction.

That record is held by Arthur Streeton’s The Grand Canal, 1908, which set pulses racing when it went for $3,068,182 (including buyer’s premium) through Deutscher and Hackett in Melbourne in 2021.

Apart from being a “knockout” painting with particularly vibrant colouring, Souvenir de Belle-Île has commendable bloodlines.

Sydney-born Russell painted the picture in his adopted home of Belle-Île in Brittany, France, where he lived for 20 years from the late 1880s.

Russell gave Souvenir de Belle-Île to his friend Dr William Maloney, a fellow Australian with whom he had travelled through France and Spain.

Additionally, Maloney sat for his portrait by Russell in 1887. Titled Dr Will Maloney, that picture now hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria and is believed to be the first painting made with Impressionist techniques to arrive in Australia.

Maloney was a medical doctor and long-time Labor politician with humanitarian values.

Souvenir de Belle-Île has never left his family’s hands until now when one of his direct descendants is parting with it.

The work’s provenance was “impeccable”, Deutscher said.

Other attributes in the painting’s favour relate to its subject matter. It depicts Marianna Mattiocco, who married Russell in 1888 and lived with him on wild, windswept Belle-Île.

Marianna was a renowned beauty who had modelled for the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Anguished by her death in 1908, Russell set fire to many of his paintings on the island. He later returned to Sydney and lived on the Watsons Bay waterfront.

Russell died in 1930, having remarried.

In Souvenir de Belle-Île, Russell’s happy years with Marianna are manifest. The painting is also important historically. It was while living on the island that Russell stumbled on the French Impressionist Claude Monet while the latter was painting outside.

After this chance meeting, the two artists became friends and Monet shared his colour secrets with the affable Russell. Later, when a young Henri Matisse visited the island, Russell was able to pass the information on to him.

Russell is thus seen as an Antipodean-born linchpin in the development of modern art in Europe.

Souvenir de Belle-Île, measuring 65 by 81.5 cm, is on view until Sunday, August 6, in Deutscher and Hackett’s Sydney premises with the other lots in the auction. The Melbourne viewing will be held between August 10 and 15.

Deutscher said Streeton’s The Grand Canal was the only Australian Impressionist painting to make more than $3 million at auction including buyer’s premium.

“After that there’s two other Streetons in the two millions and then (Frederick) McCubbin is $2.3 million back in 1998 for Bush Idyll. They’re the only ones in the twos,” he said.

“[Tom] Roberts and [Charles] Conder haven’t hit a million yet; they’re $900,000. Two other Russells fetched $1.56 million and $1.8 million.

“Then the other expats [Emanuel] Phillips Fox and [Ethel] Carrick Fox – Phillips has hit a million once, and Carrick’s hit a million twice, and Rupert Bunny’s hit a million once.

“This [Souvenir de Belle-Île] could set a new Impressionist record if it was around the top of the estimate. And if any picture’s going to do it, it’s this one.”

Other standouts in the auction catalogue include works from two Melbourne private collections.

Works collected by ad man Peter Clemenger and his late wife Joan are now being offered for sale. The couple began collecting so long ago that they once paid $190 for a Fred Williams work on paper and $5 for a Lawrence Daws.

Clemenger works being sold include Brett Whiteley’s South Coast after the Rain, 1984, which was bought from Robin Gibson Gallery in Sydney in 1985. It is estimated at $1.5 million to $2 million.

Henry Krongold CBE AM, who died in 2003, started his collection in 1976, guided by prominent Melbourne art dealer Dr Joseph Brown.

Krongold pictures in the sale include Sidney Nolan’s 1955 Early Morning Township, estimated at $1.5 million to $2 million. Early Morning Township last sold for $96,000 through Sotheby’s Melbourne in 1996.