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John Singer Sargent and Robert Louis Stevenson

John Singer Sargent had a capacity to idealize his portrait subjects that few painters of his era could rival. He could also tantalize and mystify, as he did in Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife (Pl. I). Why did Sargent paint the celebrated author in this strange way? It is among the most daring and unorthodox portraits he ever created. His attraction to the charismatic writer, whom he described as "the most intense creature that I had ever met," (1) was such that he was prepared to risk public censure to commemorate Stevenson's eccentric personality and way of life.

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In 1885 Sargent was in a time of crisis and confusion serious enough that he considered giving up painting altogether, as he confided to his friend the writer Edmund Gosse (1849-1928). (2) This low point must have arisen in part because of the scandal caused in the Paris Salon of 1884 when he displayed his notorious portrait of Virginie Amelie Avengo Gautreau (1859-1915) entitled Madame X (1883-1884; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City).

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Sargent probably turned to Stevenson because of a new public fascination with the lives of the famous. With this portrait Sargent not only publicized his acquaintance with the noted author, whom he had probably met in France in the 1870s, but also revealed aspects of Stevenson's domestic circumstances to an increasingly inquisitive audience. (3)

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Sargent situates the Stevensons in the dining room of their manor house in Bournemouth, England, during an informal moment. The Scottish writer glides restlessly across the room away from his wife while gazing fixedly at Sargent with whom he is apparently energetically conversing. Stevenson's wife, the artist Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson, exotically dressed in a sari, lounges with elaborate detachment in the only chair, her face turned away.

This is the most significant of a small group of paintings the artist devoted to Stevenson in the mid-1880s. The first of these, a portrait of 1884, disappointed both artist and sitter, and according to family tradition Fanny Stevenson destroyed it before it could even be photographed. Stevenson himself lamented in a letter written around December 17, 1884, to the English poet and dramatist William Ernest Henley (known as W. E. Henley; 1849-1903) that the picture showed him as a "weird, very pretty, large-eyed, chicken-boned, slightly contorted poet." (4) Sargent next created a charcoal sketch showing Stevenson twice, walking and talking (Fig. 5), an approach that formed the basis for the figure of Stevenson in the painting in Plate I. Sargent painted his third and final oil of the writer (Pl. II) for Charles Fairchild (1838-1910), a Boston banker, who presented it to his wife Elizabeth Nelson Fairchild (1845-1924), a Boston poet and the leader of a literary salon. This painting demonstrates that if the occasion required. Sargent could paint the writer as a heroic man of letters.

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The portrait of Stevenson and his wife portrays them suspended between bohemian abandon and bourgeois constraint, which was very much their actual position in the mid-1880s. Stevenson was thirty-five, on the threshold of international fame and on the brink of renouncing middle-class European life for a primitive retreat in Samoa. His Treasure Island had appeared in 1883 after being serialized in 1881 and 1882; his Child's Garden of Verses came out in 1885, the year of the portrait; and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published in 1886, shortly after the portrait was completed. The mid-1880s was the most productive period in Stevenson's career, but it coincided with a serious bout of a respiratory ailment, possibly tuberculosis.

By all accounts the author cut a strange figure and chose to dramatize rather than suppress his eccentricities. His hair was longer than was fashionable; he wore the velvet jacket of European artists and aesthetes; and usually a cigarette dangled from his long, tapered fingers (see Fig. 1). For his last portrait of Stevenson. Sargent closely followed the photograph taken by the secessionist photographer Alice Boughton (Fig. 4).

There are many accounts of Stevenson's odd features, his feminine prettiness, and his frailty. His friend Henley described his "thin damp locks, as though ... just dragged up out of the water ... the eyes, ghost-seeing." (5) The Scottish writer Andrew Lang (1844-1912) observed that he was "more like a lass than a lad." (6) And another observer wrote:

Louis Stevenson was the queerest object you could conceive ... badly put
together, a slithering, loose flail of a fellow, all joints, elbows,
exposed spindle shanks.... He was so like a scarecrow that one almost
expected him to creak in the wind. (7)

Stevenson was made into a handsome manly figure in other representations. He is wrapped in a voluminous poncho in the photograph shown in Figure 2, and his features were classicized by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the bas-relief shown in Plates III and IIIa. By contrast, Sargent chose to portray Stevenson as ailing: cadaverously thin and pale with flushed cheeks and clawlike fingers. He infused the double portrait of Stevenson and his wife with suggestions of mortality. The deep reds and mauves lend the room an aura of convalescent confinement, even seeming to allude specifically to Stevenson's lung ailment. The central void of the doorway, guarded by the ghostly Fanny, an exotic Charon, suggests the proximity of death.


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