Wednesday, September 27, 2017

What Double Portraits Reveal

John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925), Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, 1885, 
oil on canvas, 20.2 x 24.3 in. (51.4 x 61.6 cm)
Inscribed, upper left:  to R.L. Stevenson, his friend John S. Sargent, 1885 
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2005.3 
Photography by Dwight Primiano.
Photograph:  Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum 


This post is a continuation of August 2017 ArtWithHillary blog post Paint Into Words and Words Into Paint: Henry James Portrayed


In 1884 Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 - 1894), his wife Fanny (1840 - 1914) and his friends Henry James (1843 - 1916) and John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925) were all in Bournemouth, England, a seaside town in south England.


In the first decades of the nineteenth century,  Bournemouth evolved into a spa resort.  The attraction was the new popularity of sea bathing, believed to have health benefits. The town's appeal was further enhanced by the planting of hundreds of pine trees because pine air was thought to help those with lung disease, especially tuberculosis.  


The coming of rail transportation in 1870 increased the number of summer visitors along with the permanent population.  Writers and artists came to favor the place. For Stevenson, Bournemouth's medicinal attractions were particularly enticing.  He had suffered from lung disease and poor health his whole life, so he and his wife remained there until 1887.



Skerryvore Cottage, Bournemouth
Inscribed lower left: E. C. Rixotto 1898
Photograph:  Wikimedia Commons from the file: 
In 1885, Stevenson's father Thomas,  an engineer, purchased a home as a gift to his daughter-in-law.  Stevenson named the house Skerryvore after a famous lighthouse his father and brother had built off the coast of Scotland.  

The house served Stevenson's work well.  He completed Kidnapped and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  One of the first visitors to Skerryvore and a frequent guest thereafter was Henry James.  James had taken his invalid sister Alice for a few weeks to Bournemouth for her health. The writers first met there in the spring or early summer of 1885 but had corresponded previously. About a year earlier James had written a magazine article concerning the proper purpose of the novel. Stevenson published a positive response which prompted an exchange of letters between the two.**  A close friendship quickly developed.


Stevenson and Sargent knew each other through Stevenson's cousin, the painter R. A. M. Stevenson (1847 -1900) who was studying painting in Paris along with Sargent.  In 1874, on a visit to his painter cousin, R. L. Stevenson and  Sargent met and became friends.



John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925), Self-Portrait, 1886,
oil on canvas, 13.58 x 11.69 in. (35.5 x 29.7 cm)
Inscribed, upper left:  John S. Sargent 1886

In 1885 Sargent was in Bournemouth seeking refuge from the scandal of his Madame X painting, a portrait which was ridiculed terribly after being shown in the Paris Salon. Concerned about commissions drying up, Sargent fled Paris for England seeking support from his friends. Stevenson was one he turned to.

Sargent painted three portraits of the writer at Skerryvore.  The first, from 1884, does not survive.  The second is the 1885 painting of Stevenson and his wife and, the third, is a 1887 portrait depicting the author in a wicker chair, casually smoking, looking as if he is caught mid-sentence.   Stevenson, despite his lung problems, was a chain smoker.


John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925), Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887, 
oil on canvas, 20.06 x 24.31 in. 50.96 x 61.75 cm)
Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio
Photograph:  American Art Gallery Web site


The writer was an arresting figure said to have appealed to both men and women.  His good looks, lanky, almost too thin build and long, slender, expressive fingers were well captured by Sargent.  Andrew Lang (1844 - 1912), the critic writer, claimed Stevenson "...had the power of making other men fall in love with him."***  Sargent had told James that Stevenson "...seemed to be the most intense creature I have ever met."

John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925), Detail of Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, 1885, 
oil on canvas, 20.2 x 24.3 in. (51.4 x 61.6 cm)
Inscribed, upper left:  to R.L. Stevenson, his friend John S. Sargent, 1885 
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2005.3 
Photography by Dwight Primiano.
Photograph:  Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum 

In the portrait with his wife, Stevenson is moving about, touching his mustache.  He reportedly had the habit of walking around while talking when he became excited.  Here he strides toward the left of the painting, away from his seated wife on the far right who is almost off the canvas.

John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925), Detail of Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, 1885, 
oil on canvas, 20.2 x 24.3 in. (51.4 x 61.6 cm)
Inscribed, upper left:  to R.L. Stevenson, his friend John S. Sargent, 1885 
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2005.3 
Photography by Dwight Primiano.
Photograph:  Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum 

An earlier Sargent sketch, depicting the writer in a similar stance but in reverse, may have been the basis for the Stevenson in the final painting.


John Singer Sargent (1856 -1925), Two Sketches for a Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, Sketchbook Carnation/Lily, page 7 (recto), 1885,  charcoal, on off-white wove paper, 
9.75  x 13.63 in. (24.7 x 34.6 cm)
Inscribed, upper right corner, red-brown ink: 7
Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA
Photograph:  American Art Gallery Web site

The double portrait is strange.  The husband and wife are separated by a three-quarter open door which leads to the home's dark entrance hall and steep staircase, creating a void between the couple.  

The room, which has been said to be the couple's dining room,  is lined with wooden paneling but sparsely furnished:  an oriental-designed rug, a blue armchair where Fanny is seated, two James Whistler-like framed artworks above her head; to the left, a wooden cabinet, perhaps a sideboard.   The roughly painted work has lost contrasts and details as its colors became translucent with age.  


John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925), Detail of Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, 1885, 
oil on canvas, 20.2 x 24.3 in. (51.4 x 61.6 cm)
Inscribed, upper left:  to R.L. Stevenson, his friend John S. Sargent, 1885 
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2005.3 
Photography by Dwight Primiano.
Photograph:  Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum 

Fanny, in an Indian sari with one bare foot revealed, is positioned in a counterpose.  Her upper body and head turn away from her husband. She looks off to her left. Her legs are crossed, left over right.  With a twist in her torso, her lower limbs and left arm, crossed over her legs, incline toward the left side of the canvas. Her lack of shoes may be a reference to a story that she went barefoot to London dinner parties. The sparks of reflected light on her sari, bangles and rings enliven the composition and echo the tiny glints in the darkened stairwell.  Fanny wrote to a friend that she had put on the dress to show Sargent and, "...he could not resist putting it into the picture."  The material's sparkle would have delighted Sargent who liked to dab his canvases with small flashes of radiance.  This was the period of the British Raj.   Queen Victoria became Empress of India in 1876 and Indian imports would have been easily available.

The armchair where Fanny sits was one that belonged to Stevenson's grandfather and he wrote in a  1885 letter that Henry James loved to sit in it.  Fanny wrote to her mother-in-law that same year, "Anybody may have a 'portrait of a gentleman' but nobody ever had one like this.  It is like an open box of jewels."  And to a friend she commented that the painting was "... a very insane, most charming picture of Louis and me...."  James saw the painting later that year and wrote to a friend that the work was "...very queer & charming."

The portrait is certainly uncommon but so was the romance between Stevenson and his wife.  Fanny was an American, ten years senior to her husband.  They met when Stevenson was 25 and she was 35.  At the time, she was a married women with two children.


Fanny Osbourne, at about the time of her first meeting with Robert Louis Stevenson,
c. 1876,
from Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez, The Life of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson, London Chatto & Windus, 1920
Photographer Unknown,
Photograph:  Wikimedia Commons

Fanny had wed at sixteen to a man who turned out to be a restless philanderer.  In 1875, she left him, not the first time, and took her three children, a daughter and two sons, to Europe.   Fanny and her daughter Isobel had been studying art in San Francisco.  She wanted to continue their education at the Académie Julian in Paris, a famous private art school established by the painter Rudolph Julian.  In Paris, her youngest son became gravely ill and died in April 1876.  Under the encouragement of friends, Fanny and her two remaining children went to Grez-in-Loing, artists's summer retreat south of Paris, to recuperate from her loss. During her second trip to Grez in the summer, Stevenson's painter cousin was also in residence.  She, her daughter and the painter Stevenson became close friends.  When R. L. Stevenson also arrived in Grez that summer to visit his painter cousin, he, according to Fanny's sister, saw Fanny through an open window at an evening dinner party in the town's old inn.  It was love at first sight.

After a couple of years of transatlantic pursuit, Stevenson went after Fanny to California in 1879.  In May, 1880, they were married in San Francisco and that August sailed for Great Britain.  She was quite an adventurous woman.  Traveling with her first husband to mining towns, she reportedly learned how to shoot.  She had tried photography, made clothes, knew how to cook, rolled her own cigarettes and took up art with her daughter.  She acted as Stevenson's caregiver and, is said to have given invaluable advice to him on his work.  Her daughter acted as her stepfather's scribe when the author was too weak to do his own writing.  Like her mother, the daughter's second husband was a much younger man, twenty years her junior and may even have had an affair with her mother before she died.

Fanny and Stevenson were married some twenty years.  They traveled the world seeking a climate that would be helpful to Stevenson's hemorrhaging lungs and eventually took up residence in Samoa where Stevenson died.

As for the double portrait, some have suggested that Sargent wanted to express a disassociation  between the husband and wife.  Apparently her constructive comments could be harsh.  Stevenson called her "the violent friend."  Henry James spent time with the Stevensons and knew her probably more than Stevenson's other friends.  He always sent his regards to her in his letters to Stevenson but after his friend's death, he characterized her in derogatory terms as "barbarous," "a strange California wife."  Stevenson himself described Fanny at times as "weird," "uncanny," "insane."

The relationship was complex like all marriages.  Another aspect may be considered.  Sargent and James were very likely homosexuals.  They may have had some homoerotic feelings for the handsome, intriguing Stevenson.  This writer speculates that the separation that Sargent shows in his Stevenson double portrait, with Fanny sidelined,  may evince a desire by the painter for Stevenson. 

Sargent signed the work in the upper left corner in black paint:  To R. L. Stevenson, his friend J. S. Sargent, 1885.  The painting remained with Fanny and her daughter until 1914. That year, it was sold at auction to Helen Hay Whitney (Mrs. William Payne Whitney).  The work was in the Whitney family collections till 2004 when Steven A. Wynn, casino owner, purchased it at auction for 8.8 million dollars.  In 2005 it was acquired by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

By the way, an interesting example in Russia's State Hermitage Museum of a similarly divided portrayal is Conversation (1908 - 1912) by Henri Matisse (1869 - 1951).


Henri Matisse, (1869 - 1951), Conversation, 1908 - 1912, oil on canvas,
85.4 x 69.2 in. (217 x 177 cm), 
The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Photograph:  The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia Web site

Matisse painted himself and his wife Amelie in their summer country home.  She, on the right, in dark attire, perhaps a bathrobe, is seated upright in a blue armchair, regal as a queen.  The armchair does not appear to be upholstered emphasizing Amelie's erect pose.  Matisse, on the left, stands rigidly in pajamas imported from India which the painter liked to wear while working in his studio.  By their stance, the couple seem tense.    A window with a verdant countryside view separates them.  They look at each other.  She upward; he downward. They do not appear happy.  The cheerful curvy outdoors contrasts with the stiff  interior.  Over time, the relationship between Matisse and his wife deteriorated.  He would ultimately leave her for his model and companion Lydia Delectorskaya.  Perhaps the view represents the couple's blissful past.  

*This is an illustration from Jacqueline M. Overton, Robert Louis Stevenson For Boys And Girls, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1915), 98 - 99.

**Please note the above blog post contains many quotes.  They are primarily from letters - friends writing to friends.  The nineteenth century was a great letter writing period, a pre-internet time.  Writing and receiving letters had become an essential part of everyday urban life. 


***From Andrew Lang's essay on Robert Louis Stevenson in the collection of his essays, Adventures Among Books, first published 1905.  This note is included because of its pertinence in explaining Stevenson's appeal.  The following is the complete paragraph containing the quote:

"Mr. Stevenson possessed, more than any man I ever met, the power of making other men fall in love with him. I mean that he excited a passionate admiration and affection, so much so that I verily believe some men were jealous of other men's place in his liking. I once met a stranger who, having become acquainted with him, spoke of him with a touching fondness and pride, his fancy reposing, as it seemed, in a fond contemplation of so much genius and charm. What was so taking in him? and how is one to analyse that dazzling surface of pleasantry, that changeful shining humour, wit, wisdom, recklessness; beneath which beat the most kind and tolerant of hearts?"



   






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