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John Russell

By Francine du Plessix Gray

I’ll begin with a passage from John Russell’s book on Paris in which he writes about that city’s hotels:

“Every seasoned visitor has a list: hotels near the Rue Monge, where the deep-frying never stops and wayward youths fall unconscious in the street; suburban hotels in which the frame comes away with the door; hotels where even the arrival of an orangutan could not disturb the fairy-tale slumber, the lace-curtained indifference of the personnel; hotels where the eight-foot high windows open inward, and need the intervention of a professor of jiu-jitsu….”

I was drawn to this passage because it typifies the spry felicity of John Russell’s prose, but also, I suspect, because it’s about diversity, and John loved to depict diversity, and diversity was central to his vocation.  Most of you probably think of him as a brilliant art critic, but that’s only one narrow hue in the amazing rainbow of Russell’s career.  For beyond his books on Seurat, Matisse, Max Ernst, Francis Bacon, and numerous other artists, he wrote travel books on Switzerland, Paris, and London; a biography of the great German conductor Eric Kleiber; a book on the palaces of Leningrad; several highly regarded translations of contemporary French novelists; and the catalogue copy for the Beaubourg’s exhibition of Bonnard, which he wrote in perfect French.  His book Reading Russell offers even a broader canvas, containing essays on subjects as varied as Pushkin, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Beatrix Potter, luggage, and the beauties of the Merritt Parkway.  And when I’m confronted with Russell’s wondrous curiosity, with the universal range of his interests, I’m reminded of the legendary 16th century Italian philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who has long been seen as the prototype of what we call the Renaissance Man, and whose highly syncretic, conciliatory vision led him to be called, by his contemporaries, “The Prince of Harmony.”

“The Prince of Harmony!” What phrase could better describe John Russell, the scholar of legendary integrity and courtliness, and the quintessential syncretist of our time, who deemed the Merritt Parkway and the vagaries of luggage to be as worthy of commentary as the works of Joan Miró.  Moreover, and most importantly for his vocation, this Prince of Harmony detested writing what he called “punitive” criticism; Russell wrote exclusively with the purpose of “communicating his enthusiasm” (his phrase) about art, music, and literature, an ever chivalrous attitude which led some readers to think of him as too genteel.  “There are artists whose work I dread to see yet again,” he once said, “dance dramas which in my view have set back the American psyche several hundred years, but it has never seemed to me much of an ambition to go through life snarling and spewing.”

John Russell was born in 1919 in Fleet, near London.  He studied philosophy and politics at Magdalen College, Oxford.  During the war years he worked for British Naval Intelligence and began to contribute reviews of books, plays, and musical performances to magazines such as Cyril Connolly’s Horizon.  It is Ian Fleming, who served alongside John in Naval Intelligence, who helped him to get a job at the Sunday Times of London, where John was soon promoted to chief art critic, a post he held until 1975, when the New York Times hired him to be its chief art critic.  In the post-war decades his ability to communicate enthusiasm well served the artists emerging in his own country.  Such painters as Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Bridget Riley were barely known to the general public until John began to dedicate monographs to their work; as his colleague Picasso scholar John Richardson, has said, Russell almost single-handedly “put British painting on the map.”

There is a central feature of John’s working habits I’d like to mention, one best denoted by the Italian word sprezzatura, best translated, if you absolutely have to put it in three words, as “seemingly nonchalant ease.”  The word was first featured in Castiglione’s book “The Courtier,” which defined the prototype of the “Renaissance man” as we know him to this day—the gracious John Russell kind of citizen deeply versed in a variety of skills and disciplines.  The earmark of the true Renaissance man, Castiglione tells us, is that through his sprezzatura he avoids showing any effort in the accomplishment of his skills, and retains a serenity of bearing throughout the most difficult labors.  Michael Kimmelman, currently the chief art critic for the New York Times, is eloquent on this issue of John’s own sprezzatura as he describes the days when they were working together at the paper.  “There we were slaving at our computers,” he says, “sweating our deadlines, draft after draft after draft, and in walked John in his bright pink striped shirt and chequered jacket, and after smiling a hello to us he’d sit down and set his fingers lightly to the keyboard and presto—in less than an hour his article was finished without a word out of place.  He did not know what a draft was.”

I must inevitably address the issue of John’s stutter, for it had a profound impact on his vocation: it was an affliction he suffered from earliest childhood, and his widow, the distinguished lecturer and writer Rosamond Bernier, tells me that he decided to be a writer as a very small boy, because writing would be a substitute for speaking.  Mind you, there were interesting exceptions in which John did not ever stutter.  He never stuttered when he spoke French or German, neither did he stutter when he read a prepared statement or when he gave a toast.  I remember one New Year’s Eve in Egypt in the late 1970s: Rosamond and John and I were on the same winter cruise on the Nile and at midnight John raised his glass to the assembled company and gave a very long toast in the most mellifluous diction you can imagine. Rosamond (whom I’ve known, by the way, since 1944) tells me of an episode at the hospice in the Bronx where John spent his last months: he was enormously appreciative of every little thing his nurses did for him, and treated them like duchesses, showed his appreciation by kissing the bewildered ladies’ hands as he addressed them in French—he wished to address them in his most melodious manner.

Last but hardly least, I want to say a word about the central role of Rosamond Bernier in the last 35 years of John’s life, the very passionate nature of their love, and the depth of their esteem and admiration for each other.  In the years when Rosamond lectured at the Metropolitan John would wait with her in the wings until she went on stage, then go and take his seat in the audience; and when she’d ended her talk he’d swoop her into his arms and unfailingly tell her, “That was your best.”  As Rosamond puts it, “We were each other’s greatest fans.”  When they were first courting, in the early 1970s, a friend who glimpsed them dining alone in a restaurant describes their displays of affection as being, I quote, “so erotically charged that they bordered on the prurient.”  I witnessed a poignant token of their in-separate-ness right here at the Academy, two years ago, at our January members-only dinner, when John’s mind was just beginning to fail. Dinner was over and John and I and a few others had gathered at the elevators and John said “Ah, I must find Rosamond,” and started walking back to the dining room. I tugged at his sleeve and said John, members only tonight, Rosamond is at home, waiting for you.  “Nonsense,” he said adamantly,” she is always, everywhere at my side.”  So I whipped out my cell phone and called Rosamond and had her speak to John; she told him she was waiting for him at home and we got him into a cab and took him to his door but as he sat in the cab he kept repeating, with a slightly bewildered air, “But she is always at my side.”

It is so fitting, it is so just, that this extraordinary man met an equally extraordinary woman, and enjoyed one of the most ideal marriages of our time.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 2009.

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