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Details & Cataloguing

American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture

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New York

John Singer Sargent
1856-1925
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON AND HIS WIFE
signed To R.L. Stevenson, his friend John S. Sargent and dated 1885, u.l.
oil on canvas
20 1/4 by 24 1/4 in.
(51.4 by 61.6 cm)
Read Condition Report Read Condition Report

Provenance

Robert Louis Stevenson
Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson, Vailima, Samoa
Mrs. Isobel Strong (her daughter), Santa Barbara, California
Sale: The Anderson Auction Company, New York, Autograph Letters, Original Manuscripts, Books, Portraits and Curios from the Library of the late Robert Louis Stevenson, November 24, 1914, lot 428, illustrated
Mrs. Payne Whitney, New York (acquired at the above sale)
John Hay Whitney (her son), New York, 1944
Mrs. John Hay Whitney, New York, 1982

Exhibited

London, England, New English Art Club, Dudley Gallery, Summer Exhibition, April 1887, no. 84 (as Portrait of Robt. Louis Stevenson and Mrs. Stevenson.  A sketch)
New York, Grand Central Art Galleries, Retrospective Exhibition of Important Works by John Singer Sargent, February-March 1924, no. 28, p. 13, illustrated
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Memorial Exhibition of the Work of John Singer Sargent, January-February 1926, no. 11, p. 4, illustrated
Chicago, Illinois, The Art Institute of Chicago, A Century of Progress: Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture, June-November 1933, no. 479, p. 65, illustrated
San Francisco, California, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Exhibition of American Painting, June-July 1935, no. 198, illustrated
Cleveland, Ohio, The Cleveland Museum of Art, American Painting from 1860 until Today, June-October 1937, no. 169, p. 38, illustrated pl. 6
Paris, France, Musée du Jeu de Paume, Tros Siècles d’Art aux Etats-Unis, 1938, no. 149, illustrated fig. 14
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Carnegie Institute, Survey of American Paintings, October-December 1940, no. 198
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Romantic Painting in America, November 1943-February 1944, no. 182, p. 141, illustrated p. 81
New York, Portraits Inc., Portraits of Personalities Past and Present for the Benefit of Visiting Nurse Service of New York, January-February 1952, no. 39
New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Art Gallery, Pictures Collected by Yale Alumni, May-June 1956, no. 119, illustrated
London, England, The Tate Gallery, The John Hay Whitney Collection, December 1960-January 1961, no. 54, illustrated in color
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 18th and 19th Century American Paintings from Private Collections, June-September 1972
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, The John Hay Whitney Collection, May-September 1983, no. 72, p. 170, illustrated in color p. 171
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, John Singer Sargent, October 1986-January 1987, p. 287, illustrated in color fig. 49, p. 79
Washington, D.C., The National Portrait Gallery, Five of Hearts: A Washington Friendship, June-November 1990, no. 75
Williamstown, Massachusetts, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Uncanny Spectacle: The Public Career of the Young John Singer Sargent, June-September 1997, no. 30, pp. 124-25, 126, 147, 185, illustrated in color p. 147 (as Mr. and Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson)
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, John Singer Sargent, February-September 1999, pp. 29, 83, 106, 120, illustrated p. 29, fig. 31

Literature

The Daily Telegraph, April 9, 1887
“Art Exhibitions,” Illustrated London News, April 9, 1887, p. 406
“Picture Galleries,” Saturday Review, April 9, 1887, p. 515
G[eorge] B[ernard] S[haw], “Picture Shows,” The World: A Journal for Men and Women, April 13, 1887, p. 20
“The Chronicle of Art: Art in April," Magazine of Art, 1887, p. xxv
“Spring Exhibitions,” Art Journal, May 1887, p. 159
“The Chronicle of Art: Art in September," Magazine of Art, 1887, p. xlv
R.A.M. Stevenson, “J.S. Sargent,” Art Journal, 1888, p. 68
Sidney Colvin, The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, London, England, 1899, vol. 1, pp. 362-63
Graham Balfour, The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, London, England, 1901, vol. 2, pp. 8, 109
J.A. Hammerton, ed., Stevensoniana, London, England, 1903, pp. 78, 79, 145
American Art Annual, 1915, v. 12, illustrated p. 294
Letters, Vailima edition, 1923, vol. 2, p. 355
Tusitala Letters, vol. 3, pp. 50, 52
Forbes Watson, “John Singer Sargent,” Arts, March 1924, illustrated p. 145
Art News, March 15, 1924, illustrated p. 6
Art and Archaeology, September 1924, illustrated p. 111
New York Times Book Review, November 29, 1925, illustrated p. 1 (detail)
William Howe Downes, John S. Sargent: His Life and Work, Boston, Massachusetts, 1925, pp. 141-42
Evan Charteris, K.C., John Sargent, New York, 1927, pp. 79-80, 259, illustrated facing p. 80
J.B. Manson and Alice Christiana Meynell, The Work of John S. Sargent, R.A., London, England, 1927, illustrated
E.V. Lucas, The Colvins and their Friends, London, England, 1928, p. 165
Magazine of Art, January 1944, illustrated p. 5
Janet Adam Smith, Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson, London, England, 1948, pp. 109, 111
Malcolm Elwin, The Strange Case of Robert Louis Stevenson, London, England, 1950, p. 194
Charles Merrill Mount, John Singer Sargent: A Biography, New York 1955, pp. 107-08, 430 (852); 1957 ed., pp. 90-91, 339; 1969 ed., pp. 107-08, 452
Charles Merrill Mount, "Sargent: An American Old Master," The New York TImes Magazine, January 8, 1956, illustrated p. 29
David McKibbin, “A complete checklist of Sargent’s portraits,” Sargent’s Boston, with an Essay & a Biographical Summary, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, 1956, p. 124
J. Russell, “La Collection Whitney,” L’Oeil, May 1958, illustrated
Richard Ormond, John Singer Sargent: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors, New York, 1970, pp. 233, 245, illustrated in color pl. VIII
Carter Ratcliff, John Singer Sargent, New York, 1982, p. 109, illustrated in color p. 102, pl. 142
Stanley Olson, John Singer Sargent: His Portrait, London, England, 1986, pp. 114, 115
Sargent at Broadway: The Impressionist Years, Coe Kerr Gallery, New York, 1986, p. 41, illustrated fig. 22
Jeremy Treglown, ed., The Lantern Bearers and Other Essays, London, England, 1988, illustrated in color on the cover (detail)
Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, eds., The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, New Haven, Connecticut, 1995, vol. 5, pp. 124, 137, 210
Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits, New Haven, Connecticut, 1998, no. 162, pp. 5, 13, 129, 158, 162, 164, 167-69, 255, illustrated in color pp. 162 (detail), 168

Catalogue Note

Painted in 1885, Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife is perhaps the best known and most widely recognized of the striking, informal portraits John Singer Sargent began painting in the early 1880s.  It was one of the Whitneys' favorite paintings and, though it was requested for inclusion in numerous exhibitions, they were reluctant to part with it for long periods of time, such was their enjoyment of living with this unique painting.  Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife dates from a period in Sargent’s career when he spent much of his time away from his studios in Paris and London working at the artist’s colony at Broadway, a picturesque village in the English Cotswolds.  The resultant paintings are imbued with an impressionistic vitality and spontaneity lacking in the formal commissioned portraits that had earned the artist his reputation until that point.

Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife is the second of three portraits Sargent painted of the Scottish author (figure 1).  The first, an endeavor of 1884, now missing and most likely destroyed by Stevenson’s wife Fanny, was not to the artist’s liking, as noted in a letter of that year from Stevenson to W.E. Henley, “He is not pleased; wants to do me again in several positions; walking about and talking is his main notion.  We both lost our hearts to him: a person with a kind of exhibition manner and English accent, who proves on examination, simple, bashful, honest, enthusiastic and rude with a perfect (but quite inoffensive) English rudeness” (Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits, New Haven, Connecticut, 1998 p. 141).  In Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife Sargent realized his notion of the writer in motion and conversation.  A third portrait of 1887, now in the collection of the Taft Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio (figure 3), was commissioned by Charles Fairchild, a Boston banker, for his wife, an admirer of Stevenson's work.

Sargent painted Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife while visiting Bournemouth, a resort town on the coast of England south of London, where Stevenson and his wife Fanny lived at Skerryvore (figure 2), a house inherited from Stevenson’s father and named after a lighthouse the family firm built in Argyll, Scotland.  Stevenson, a Scottish novelist and poet famed for his adventure tales Treasure Island and Kidnapped among other writings, was often unwell and retired to Skerryvore on regular occasions to recover from his illnesses.  Sargent likely met Stevenson through Henry James or R.A.M. Stevenson, the writer’s cousin who also studied painting with Sargent in Paris.  According to Carol Troyen, “They may well have met in France in the mid-1870s; by the mid-1880s, when Stevenson began to sit for Sargent, there was great rapport between them.  Sargent described Stevenson as ‘the most intense creature he had ever met' (Edel 1963, p. 87); Stevenson found Sargent ‘a charming, simple, clever, honest young man’ (Stevenson Papers, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale University MS B 3413)” (John Singer Sargent, Tate Gallery, 1998, p. 120).

The Hon. Evan Charteris, Sargent’s friend and biographer who was also a trustee of the Tate Gallery wrote, “Some hint of the vitality of…life speaks in the debonair and whimsical figure that Sargent has caught in the very moment of movement.  …a being, who, while lean and haggard with illness, is still for venture and conquest and ‘as full of spirit as the month of May’—his eye as bright as though he had just seen the Rajah’s diamond or heard the call of Silver’s parrot.  We see him with invention quickening in his brain, his spirit astir with fancy and antic wit; a vivid personality revealed with the intimacy that perhaps a sketch can best attain.  R.A.M. Stevenson described the picture as ‘instinct with life and gesture, to a degree perhaps impossible to render by closer and more explicit workmanship,’ and Robert Louis himself wrote about it to W.H. Low on October 22, 1885.

‘Sargent was down again and painted a portrait of me walking about in my own dining-room, in my own velveteen jacket, and twisting as I go my own moustache: at one corner a glimpse of my wife, in an Indian dress, and seated in a chair that was once my grandfather’s but since some months goes by the name of Henry James’s, for it was there the novelist loved to sit—adds a touch of poesy and comicality.  It is, I think, excellent, but is too eccentric to be exhibited.  I am at one extreme corner: my wife in this wild dress, and looking like a ghost is at the extreme other end: between us an open door exhibits my palatial entrance hall and part of my respected staircase.  All this is touched in lovely, with that witty touch of Sargent’s: but of course it looks damn queer as a whole’” (Charteris, 1927, p. 80).

Sargent visited Skerryvore while he was living at Broadway with Francis D. Millet and Edward Austin Abbey.  A wide circle of creative friends and acquaintances, including painters Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Alfred Parsons, illustrator Frederick Barnard and writers Henry James and Edmund Gosse, formed a lively and relaxed artist’s colony.  It was at Broadway, far removed from the critics of London and Paris and the uproar over Madame X, shown at the Paris Salon in 1884, that Sargent allowed himself to work in a more instinctive and casual manner.  Elaine Kilmurray notes that although the Broadway circle shared interests and subject matter, “what remains distinct is the difference and the modernity of Sargent’s aesthetic and purpose.  He had come hotfoot from Paris and brought a breath of the new painting with him.  …With regard to portraiture, he was dashing off to London now and then to work on a small number of commissioned works, and he painted informal portrait sketches, which were, by and large, done for friends and given as gifts” (John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits, pp. 163, 164).  Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife was a gift from Sargent to the Stevensons who hung it in the drawing room at Skerryvore and whose delight in the painting is captured in a letter of August 13, 1885 from Fanny to her mother-in-law: “It is lovely, but has a rather insane appearance, which makes us value it all the more.  Anybody may have a ‘portrait of a gentleman’ but nobody ever had one like this.  It is like an open box of jewels.  I am dying for you to see it” (John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits, p. 167).

A Dinner Table at Night (figure 4), Sargent's depiction of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Vickers in a lamp-lit interior, is one of the first of the informal “portrait sketches” in which the artist experimented with a more fluid, spontaneous composition.  Marc Simpson writes, “This is an extremely modern composition, recalling the café scenes of Degas in its point of view, sketchiness of still-life elements, and the visual wit of Albert Vickers’s truncated, marginalized figure …  A Dinner Table at Night established a mode of informal genre portrait, an updated version of the eighteenth-century conversation piece, to which Sargent would repeatedly turn” (Uncanny Spectacle: The Public Career of the Young John Singer Sargent, p. 124).  According to Mr. Simpson, Sargent “reached the acme of the format” with Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife.  “Splendidly vivid and lively, yet deeply puzzling, such a work shows Sargent challenging the conventions of portraiture and the expectations of the British public” (Uncanny Spectacle, p. 125).  Sargent’s perception of these paintings as fresh and innovative is evidenced in his decision to exhibit them at the New English Art Club, “a venue that was perceived as being an outlet for ideas modern and French in the midst of the staid British art world” (Uncanny Spectacle, p. 124).  

Sargent began his formal artistic training in Paris in 1874 as a student in the atelier of French portraitist Carolus-Duran.  Although he had already spent many years sketching in watercolor and charcoal in European museums under the tutelage of his mother, herself an amateur artist, Carolus-Duran provided Sargent’s first instruction in oil painting.  The master taught his students to paint directly onto a blank canvas, applying layers of wet paint over one another, as opposed to the contemporary instruction at the École des Beaux-Arts which encouraged preliminary sketches and oil studies and preferred highly finished surfaces for final works.  Though Sargent’s first major works were subject pictures completed in the late 1870s, by the early 1880s, Sargent was gaining recognition as a highly skilled portraitist.  He established his own studio in Paris and began to exhibit at the Salon where his painterly portraits were well received and led to an increasing number of commissions.

While Sargent’s formal exhibition portraits earned him his reputation and living, the artist preferred to paint spontaneous, energetic sketches of his friends and family.  Richard Ormond writes, “His portrait sketches represent bold experiments in characterization and technique, a sharpening of his powers of observation, a responsiveness to subtleties of light and shade and spatial relationships, a feeling for the mysteries of human experience and personality, and an exposition of bravura painting.

“The part that these sketches played in the development of his art should not be underestimated.  It is here that he forged the style which so impressed his contemporaries in his finished works.  His skill in re-creating the textures of the real world, in bringing his sitters to life with so much vitality and intensity, developed through a process of continuous practice.  Sargent’s sketches were the engine-room of his art through which he learnt the lessons of precision in representation and economy of means.  Sargent’s portrait sketches were mostly of people he knew well, and to whom he was closely attached.  This enhances in them the sense of intimate revelation and impromptu characterization” (John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits, p. 69).

American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture

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New York