Alexandre Nicolaïevitch Roussoff was a Russian artist who spent most of his life in Europe. He settled in Venice where he befriended James Abbott McNeill Whistler in 1880 and competed with him in pastel drawing. Roussoff’s works were admired in London in that he sent genre scenes and landscapes for exhibition to venues including the Royal Academy, the Institute of Painters in Water Colours and the Dudley Gallery. The Art Journal wrote glowingly of his Venetian subjects at the Fine Art Society exhibition in 1882: ‘The brilliant success achieved by M Roussoff would alone have made the little Venice exhibition memorable. His church interiors especially are treated with science, mastery, and unobtrusive perfection of detail, and peopled with figures studied with an exquisite intelligence. No more learned and fresh water-colour work was ever produced with less display of dexterity.’
The subject of Roussoff’s watercolour in the Art Gallery of NSW collection is the funeral of a peasant child, with a miniature draped coffin holding centre stage in an expansive ecclesiastical setting.
The artist has avoided an overly sentimental interpretation of the scene that presumably he witnessed in Chioggia Cathedral. Indeed, the restrained pathos of the occasion was not lost to The Art Journal critic in 1883, who, after hailing the watercolour as Roussoff’s ‘chef-d’oeuvre’, went on to praise ‘the human interest’ of the composition, which the artist has treated with an ‘absence of vulgar emphasis’. He continues: ‘The burial service is being read over a very small red-covered coffin, which the old fellow near the priest will soon tuck under his arm and carry away to burial. The father and grandfather are the only mourners, and M Roussoff has treated their grief with artistic respect; he has not insisted even upon the quietness of its pathos. This beautiful drawing has been bought for the Museum at Sydney…’
When the painter Tom Roberts saw the picture in Sydney in 1891 he soon afterwards praised it in the Melbourne Argus: ‘The subject is a sad one, but we look on at the simple funeral rite, attended by the father and grandfather, and the perfunctory assistance of the acolyte and the old man with the taper, much as if we were tourists, not quite held by the action going on, and our attention is drawn up to the proportions of the great temple all around us. Everything is perfect, from the great altar, the swinging lamps, the distant walls and columns, to the cold marble floor.’
Adapted from Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017