John Russell (1745-1806) and the impact of Evangelicalism and natural theology on artistic practice
During his lifetime, John Russell's (1745-1806) pastel portraits and fancy pictures were exceedingly popular with his London clientele. However, this contemporary popularity contrasts with the pronounced lack of interest in Russell's work as an art historical subject. This failure to recognise the contemporary importance of Russell's paintings is due firstly to the prejudice displayed by some researchers towards Russell's convicted Methodism and, secondly, to their dismissal of his work as over-emotional, low art. Equally, the more private part of Russell's work, his astronomical studies and moon pastels, have not been considered by art historians before. This thesis attempts to reconstruct why and how Russell's images were so successful with late eighteenth-century British society. In order to do this, the seemingly unconnected aspects of the painter's oeuvre are considered in their entirety for the first time. This approach further draws on previously ignored private sources, such as the artist's diaries, which reveal the central role of Methodism in his work. The thesis is based on an extensive review of the painter's place among Evangelicals and of the role which Evangelical culture played within society. It is shown that Russell's Methodism, far from being socially unacceptable, was reconcilable with conservatism and aided the painter's integration. The influence of Evangelical thought on his oeuvre is investigated through fancy pictures, portraits, and his images of natural philosophy, all of which reflect the painter's conviction that God was visible in every object. Russell's art, therefore, can be seen as one continuous act of devotion.