John Peter Russell was born on 16th June 1858 at Darlinghurst, Sydney. His father owned a successful engineering company and he was educated at Boulburn School at Garroorigang. In 1874-5 he travelled to Fiji, Tahiti, China and Japan, where he acquired some Japanese woodblock prints. In 1876 he was sent to England for 3 years as a gentleman apprentice to Robey and Co. where he qualified as an engineer.
His earliest known paintings date from 1879, He visited Sydney in 1880and following his father’s death he became financially independent. Returning to London, he enrolled at the Slade Art School to study under Alphonse Legros. Back in Sydney in 1882-3 he exhibited twice with the Art Society of New South Wales, and again late in 1883 following his Spanish walking tour with Roberts, Maloney and his architect brother. In 1885 he visited the plein air painting centres in Cornwall and went on to study in Paris for 3 years (1885-88). His friends included Bertram MacKennal, Harry Bates, George Walton and progressive French artists such as Anquetin, Bernard, Guillaumin, Toulouse-Lautrec,van Gogh and Rodin.
He painted van Gogh’s portrait in 1886. In 1888 he married Marianna Antoinetta Mattiocco, an Italian model from Rodin’s studio, and moved to Brittanny. Their house at Belle-Ile was known as Le Chateau Anglais (English Castle) where he met the great French Impressionist Claude Monet and entertained Longstaff, MacKennal and many other Australians. When his wife died in 1908 he sold the Chateau and left the island.
In 1912 he re-married, Caroline de Witt Merrill, an American singer. In 1914 he worked at Portofino, Italy and also in London. He revisited Paris in 1920 and sailed for Sydney and New Zealand in 1921-2. Russell returned permanently to Sydney in 1923, and built a studio at Watson’s Bay.
In 1924 his generous offer to present his own collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings to the Art Gallery of New South Wales was declined. He died in Sydney on 22 April 1930.