... And a portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife in which Stevenson appears, as he wrote, as “a weird, very pretty, large-eyed, chicken-boned, slightly contorted poet”.
Sargent’s fall from grace following the disastrous debut of Madame X at the 1884 Paris Salon compelled the artist, then nearly 30 years old, to decamp to the English town of Broadway and lick his wounds for half a decade. There, in the bucolic Cotswolds, he painted three portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose own career was in a triumphant moment, having published Treasure Island in 1883. Situated in the Stevensons’ Dorset country home, this picture seems to have the offhand composition of a snapshot, but was actually meticulously staged, with Fanny Stevenson in elaborate Indian robes and a central open door recalling Velázquez’s Las Meninas. “Anybody may have a ‘portrait of a gentleman’ but nobody ever had one like this,” Fanny wrote to her mother-in-law that summer. “It is like an open box of jewels.”
Robert Louis Stevenson is pacing and his wife Fanny is seated in background to the right of the door. By and large, the critical review was mixed about this painting. They thought the composition odd and the depiction of Stevenson strange and unflattering, just as some people had said about Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882). But Stevenson, himself, thought that Sargent had captured correctly his odd way in which he fidgeted about the room when he wrote.
When Sargent painted Stevenson he wrote to Henry James and said that RLS "seemed to me the most intense creature I had ever met."
Sargent was 29 years old at the time and RLS was 34. it was less than one year prior to the publication of RLS's hugely popular "masterpiece" The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). It is fun to think that possibly Robert Louis Stevenson might have been working on the book, if not thinking about it, at the same time that Sargent painted him.
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