Monday, December 25, 2017

Deep Looking:

Agnes Martin/Richard Tuttle  

Installation View Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle: Crossing Lines,
Pace Gallery, New York, 2017,  
(left) Richard Tuttle (1941 - ): 43rd Wire Piece, 1972/2017, wire, graphite and nails, 
installation dimensions variable, 
exhibition copy number one measures 10 1/4 x 23 1/8 x 11 1/2 in.  (51,4 x 58.7 x 29.2 cm); 
(right) Agnes Martin (1912 - 2004): Untitled #1, 1990, 
acrylic and graphite on canvas, 72 x 72 in. (182.88 x 182.88 cm)
Photo:  Kerry Ryan McFate/Pace Gallery
© 2017 Estate of Agnes Martin /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York© Richard Tuttle
Courtesy of Pace Gallery


Pauline Oliveros (1932 - 2016), the late composer, accordionist, music theoretician and teacher, developed the concept of what she called "Deep Listening."  This involved training and encouraging professional musicians as well as non-professionals to focus on listening to sounds as opposed to simply hearing them.  To hear refers to the ability to perceive aural sensations.  To listen requires attentiveness and focus. One is involuntary; the other is voluntary.  Listening deeply heightens and enhances the musical experience opening up a new consciousness to the auditory environment.

The minimalist work of Agnes Martin (1912 - 2004) and Richard Tuttle (1941 - ) bring to mind the idea of "Deep Looking."  Their art intensifies the visual experience when the observer engages in deep looking as opposed to merely seeing.  The full beauty and inventiveness of their work reveals itself with sustained visual concentration.  

The perceptively curated Pace Gallery exhibition, Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle:  Crossing Lines, illustrates this point.  For the show, Tuttle created eight wire pieces in response to seven Martin paintings dating from c. 1960 to 2003.  Close friends for some forty decades, the two artists have not been shown together for almost twenty years. 



Installation View Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle: Crossing Lines,
Pace Gallery, New York, 2017,  
(left) Richard Tuttle (1941 - ): 29rd Wire Piece, 1972/2017,  wire, graphite and nails, 
installation dimensions variable, 
exhibition copy number one measures 34 x 31 x 13 in.  (86.4 x 78.7x 33 cm); 
(right) Agnes Martin (1912 - 2004): Untitled, c. 1960, 
oil on canvas, 65 x 65 in. (165.1 x 165.1 cm)
Photo:  Kerry Ryan McFate/Pace Gallery
© 2017 Estate of Agnes Martin /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York© Richard Tuttle
Courtesy of Pace Gallery

The installation calls for a few minutes of eye adjustment.  The gallery's walls have been repainted to blend with Martin's paintings and lighting has been heightened.  The experience at first is of a blinding light with only Martin's paintings discernable.  As represented in the images here, like apparitions, Tuttle's works appear only after visual acclimatization.  


Installation View Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle: Crossing Lines,
Pace Gallery, New York, 2017,  
(left) Richard Tuttle (1941 - ): 39th Wire Piece, 1972/2017,  wire, graphite and nails, 
installation dimensions variable, 
exhibition copy number one measures 26 3/4 x 32 1/2 (67.9 x 82.6 cm); 
(right) Agnes Martin (1912 - 2004): Untitled #8, c. 1989, 
acrylic and graphite on canvas, 72 x 72 in. (182.9 x 182.9 cm)
Photo:  Kerry Ryan McFate/Pace Gallery
© 2017 Estate of Agnes Martin /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York© Richard Tuttle
Courtesy of Pace Gallery

Martin paints subtle modulations of vertical and horizontal lines and grids.  Employing muted colors, the repetitiveness of the forms evokes a sense of peacefulness and spirituality.  Tuttle draws a pencil line on the wall and attaches a wire to the wall near the ends of the drawing.   The shadow cast by the wire completes his three part poetic compositions.  


Tuttle's pieces change according to the installation. The pencil line's thickness or thinness, the wire's configuration and the darkness or lightness of the wire's silhouette against the wall will vary according to the particular surroundings and the artist's manipulation.  These are quiet works like the Martin's paintings.  Together, the pairing offers viewers a respite from the visual cacophony of today's world.  They lead to an acuteness of looking while proffering serenity.  Go take a look.


Note:  Pace Gallery's solo exhibit of Richard Tuttle sculptures, Richard Tuttle:  100 Epigrams, is on view at the same time as Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle:  Crossing Lines.  In a room on the gallery's third floor, one flight up from Agnes Martin/Richard Tuttle show, seven of Tuttle's charming constructions attract and delight.  Ordinary, unremarkable materials are transformed into wondrous objects.  The pieces are Tuttle at his best. 

Richard Tuttle (1941 - ), 100 Epigrams, 2017, (A) vinyl tubing, metal, Elmer's glue, canvas, pine wood, wool thread, tape, paper clips, purple rice paper, and mixed media; (B) cardboard, pine wood, copper wire, glue, wool thread, Elmer's glue, canvas, paper clips, purple rice paper, and mixed media, 
(A) 29 3/4 x 20 x 6 1/2 in. (75.6 x 50.8 x 16.5 cm), 
(B) 30 x 20 1/4 x 8 (76.2 x 132.1 x 20.3 cm)
Photo:  GrandDude Web site


Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle:  Crossing Lines
November 2, 2017 - January 13, 2018
32 East 57th Street, Manhattan
Hours:  
Tuesday - Saturday 10 am - 6 pm

Friday, November 3, 2017

Only One Original Salvator Mundi

Only One Leonardo
Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519), Salvator Mundi, c. 1500, 
oil on walnut panel, 
 25 7/8 x 18 in. (65.7 x 45.7 cm) 
Private Collection
Photograph:  Courtesy of Christie's

The news of a Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519) painting going on sale is a major event.  Leonardo was in a class by himself.  He was the consummate polymath - artist, inventor, engineer, scientist, writer, musician and more.  Although known primarily as a painter, fewer than twenty extant paintings have been in part or entirely attributed to him. Only one can be seen in the United States: his portrait of Ginevra de' Benci in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.   

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519 ), Ginevra de' Benci, c. 1474/1478, 
oil on panel, original panel only:  15 x 14 9/16 in. (38.1 x 37 cm),  
with addition at bottom edge:  16 13/16 x 14 9/16 in. (42.7 x 37 cm)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Photograph:  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC Web site

Another painting is going on public view from November 4 through 15 at Christie's New York.  The work is the artist's Salvator Mundi. It will be auctioned on November 15, 2017 at Christie's Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Far less well known than his Mona Lisa and Last Supper, the two most famous and reproduced paintings in the history of art, the work for sale depicts Christ as "Savior of the World" described in I. John 4:14: "And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world."  "Salvator Mundi" is Latin for "Savior of the World."   Christ is represented rigid and frontal.  The pose is archaic dating back to sixth-century Byzantine representation of Christ as Pantocrator, "Ruler of All."  The same image was frequently depicted in the apse behind the altar in Romanesque churches throughout Europe.  

Leonardo's Christ holds a rock crystal orb in his left hand and raises his right hand in a gesture of blessing.  The orb has long been associated as symbolic of the world and kingship.  Rock crystal, during the Renaissance, was believed to have magical powers. The sphere associated with the divine.  

The composition shows the influence of the central panel of a polyptych by Giotto now in the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina.  Giotto was an early Renaissance artist renowned for his increased naturalism in portrayals of the human figure as well as his realistic representations of nature.  Leonardo took from Giotto's Christ the gesture of crossed fingers on the blessing hand and the curve of the drapery across the figure's chest. The work also displays Leonardo's familiarity with images of Christ's face produced miraculously such as the one on Saint Veronica's veil, still in St. Peter's Basilica at this time. 

Giotto di Bondone (1276 - 1337) and assistants, Central Panel of the "Peruzzi Altarpiece", 
c. 1310 – 1315,  tempera and gold leaf on poplar panel, 
41 5/8 x 98 1/2 in. (105.7 x 250.2 cm)
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina
Photo:  Wikiart Web site


Leonardo's Salvator Mundi has long been known from a 1650 etching by the etcher, engraver and draughtsman Wenceslaus Hollar along with some twenty paintings that are copies and replicas by the master's students and followers.  

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607 -1667), Salvator Mundi after Leonardo
Inscription:  Leonardo da Vinci pinxit,  Wenceslaus Hollar fecit,  Aqua forti  Secundum Originale, A. 1650 (Leonardo da Vinci painting, Wenceslaus Holler did etching according to the original in 1650), 1650, etching, 10.24 x 7.09 in. (26 x 18 cm)
Photo:  Christie's Website

Scholars conjecture that Salvator Mundi was commissioned by the French King Louis XII and his wife Anne of Brittany when the Duchy of Milan fell to the French in 1499.  They posit the work remained in the French royal collection until princess Henrietta Maria took it to England when she married King Charles I in 1625.  It was recorded in a 1651 inventory of Charles I's collection and documented in a 1666 list of paintings belonging to his son, King Charles II. Most likely it remained with James II, who ascended the throne in 1685 after the death of his brother, Charles II.  It is thought the painting passed to James' mistress and her descendants.  

In the eighteenth century, the work's whereabouts were lost with one exception.  There was a reference to it in a 1783 sale of artworks arranged by the illegitimate son of the Duke of Buckingham after the sale of Buckingham Palace to the king.  

The work resurfaced in 1900 when it was acquired by Sir Francis Cook, a successful linen and textile merchant.  Cook purchased it as a work by a Leonardo follower.  It was purchased for Cook by his art advisor. Where his advisor obtained it is not known.  By this time, flaws in the painting's supporting wood necessitated extensive overpainting.  The work was in bad shape. 

The painting disappeared again for over fifty years until 1958 when it was sold as a copy by one of Leonardo's pupils at a Sotheby's auction for £45, the equivalent of about $2,350 today.  The location of the painting was again lost for about fifty years when in 2005, still assigned as a copy by one of Leonardo's pupils, it was purchased by a group of art dealers from an American estate at a small regional auction house in New Orleans for approximately $10,000.   The dealers proceeded to have the painting restored and to prove Leonardo's authorship.  

In 2007 Dianne Dwyer Modestini, a world famous conservator, undertook the cleaning, restoration and conservation of Salvator Mundi.  Dr. Modestini completed her work in 2010 providing a detailed analysis of the painting's condition, materials and technique. Further inspection by leading Leonardo experts concluded in 2011 that the painting was the original Leonardo Salvator Mundi.  

The restored and authenticated Salvator Mundi was presented to the public in 2011 at London's National Gallery of Art in the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci:  Painter at the Court of Milan.  Two years later it was once again sold through a private sale arranged by Sotheby's to an art dealer for somewhere between $75 million and $80 million.  The dealer subsequently sold the work to a Russian oligarch for $127.5 million.  It is now estimated to fetch approximately $100 million at the Christie's sale. 

Dr. Modestini's restoration was a major undertaking.  The background, for example, had almost entirely been scraped down to the wood panel. The choice of the now ivory black color - a rich black with a bit of warm brown undertone - for the background was the restorer's. Overpainting affected large areas and even included a mustache on the Christ figure which may have appeared too feminine for some.  Even so, enough of the original remained to discern Leonardo's workmanship.  

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519), Detail of Salvator Mundi, c. 1500, 
oil on walnut panel, 
 25 7/8 x 18 in. (66.7 x 45.7 cm) 
Private Collection
Photograph:  Courtesy of Christie's

The rendering of the figure's hands, hair and parts of the forehead, relatively well-preserved, made the Leonardo attribution compelling. Comprehensive examination revealed that the painting technique - thin layering of the oils - and the pentimenti, indications of Leonardo changing his mind, were typical of the artist.  A case in point is the thumb on Christ's blessing hand.  It was initially drawn in a more upright position then altered as Leonardo worked out his composition. The palm of Christ's left hand was also revised in a manner consistent with Leonardo's working methods.  

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519), Detail of Salvator Mundi, c. 1500, 
oil on walnut panel, 
 25 7/8 x 18 in. (66.7 x 45.7 cm) 
Private Collection
Photograph:  Courtesy of Christie's


Also characteristic of Leonardo are the marks made by the heel of  his hand above Christ's left eye.  The palm's pressure visibly softened the paint's appearance, making the depicted flesh seem more true to life.  

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519), Detail of Salvator Mundi, c. 1500, 
oil on walnut panel, 
 25 7/8 x 18 in. (66.7 x 45.7 cm) 
Private Collection
Photograph:  Courtesy of Christie's

Two Leonardo red chalk drapery studies for Salvator Mundi in the English Royal Collection further strengthened the attribution of the panel as the Leonardo autograph primary version.  

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519), Drapery Study for the  Salvator Mundi, c. 1500, 
red chalk and traces of pen and ink heightened with white chalk
 on pale red-ochre prepared paper, 
 8.67 x 5.47 in. (22 x 13.9 cm) 
Royal Collection, United Kingdom
(RCIN 912524)
Photograph:  Royal Collection Trust Web site


Christie's is showing the Salvator Mundi without glass.  To view a work directly, absent of reflections produced by protective glaze, is a treat. Go see for yourself.

Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi
Post-War & Contemporary Art 
Evening Sale
November 15, 2017 at 7:00 pm
Admission to this sale is by ticket only.
20 Rockefeller Plaza, Manhattan
Public Viewing:  
November 4, 2017 - November 15, 2017
Monday - Saturday 10 am - 5 pm
Sundays 1 pm - 5 pm
November 15, 2017 10 am - 12 noon

Addendum:  Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi sold for $450,312,500 at Christie's Post War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on November 15, 2017.  The price included Christie's Buyer's Premium - the additional amount a buyer pays to the auction house. The Leonardo netted Christie's over $50,000,000.  The sale was the highest price ever paid for a painting at auction.  The bidding lasted a bit less that 20 minutes.  The  purchaser, Saudi prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, made the final offer via phone to Christie's co-chair Alex Rotter who relayed the winning bid to the auctioneer.  Prince Bader is said to be acting for Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  Prince Bader is a distant relative and friend of Prince Mohammed.  12/8/17

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Duchamp Disclosed: Maybe Yes, Maybe No

Marcel Duchamp (1887 - 1968) Étant donnés *(1946 - 1966) exhibition view, 
August 15, 2009 - November 29, 2009,
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelpia, Pennsylvania,
assemblage, manuscripts, mixed media, ready-mades
Photographer:  Jason Wierzbicki
Photograph:  Artstor Website

If the question is posed "Which artist has had the most influence on twentieth and twenty-first century art?" the answer would very likely be Marcel Duchamp (1887 - 1968).  This French-American was not only a sculptor, painter, theorist, and art dealer/collector but also a writer and chess player.  His work led to and/or influenced conceptualism, installation, performance, appropriation and kinetic art.  His innovative readymades and gender identity/fluidity, language and text art resonates in today's art world.  


Marcel Duchamp (1887 - 1968) Étant donnés *(1946 - 1966) exhibition view, 
August 15, 2009 - November 29, 2009,
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelpia, Pennsylvania,
assemblage, manuscripts, mixed media, ready-mades
Photographer:  Jason Wierzbicki
Photograph:  Artstor Website

By the early 1920s, Duchamp appeared to have given up being an active artist.  He seemingly devoted himself entirely to chess.  Secretly, however, he was working on his magnum opus, Étant donnés, an approximately 8 feet long complex diorama viewed through two hardly perceptible peepholes cut into a barn door. The construction would occupy him for over twenty years.  It was his last artwork.  At his death Duchamp left a detailed manual plotting the work's dismantling and reassembling.  In 1969 it was installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it remains on permanent exhibition.  

Étant donnés provides viewers with an extremely strange and compelling vision.  A supine nude, legs splayed, lies on a ground of twigs in a rural landscape that includes a waterfall.  She holds up a lit gas lamp although the scene takes place in bright light, on a sunny day. The view through two holes enhances the eyes' normal stereoscopic vision and makes the tableau uncannily three-dimensional.  Its meaning has been the subject of much discourse.  No definitive interpretation has yet to be established.   Now Serkan Özkaya, a Turkish artist living and working in New York, has come up with an answer.


Illustration of Étant donnés as comera obscure by Lai Bahcecioglu and Sandra Chollet.  
Photograph:  Courtesy of  Serkan Özkaya and Postmasters Gallery

Özkaya postulates that Duchamp's work conceals the artist's self-portrait which is seen when the construction is transformed into a camera obscura. Duchamp then appears as his feminine alter ego, Rrose Sélavy.  The name was a pun.  When pronounced in french, Rrose Sélavy sounds like the saying "Eros, c’est la vie" that is to say in English "Eros, that's life."


Man Ray (1890 - 1976), Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, 1920 - 1921, 
gelatin silver print, retouched, 8 1/2 x 6 13/16 inches (21.6 x 17.3 cm) 
© Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelpia, Pennsylvania
Photograph:  Artstor Website

Özkaya built a full-scale model of État donnés to illustrate his theory. He first set it up in Duchamp's old studio at 80 East 11th Street, room 403, New York City.  Özkaya worked three years on the project. He enlarged the size of the peepholes to create a bigger projected image.  


Work-in-progress at 80 East 11th Street #403.
Photograph: Deniz Tortum, 2017
Photograph:  Courtesy of Serkan Özkaya and Postmasters Gallery

The camera obscura was the darkened studio room.  Light from the installation passed through the two apertures projecting on the opposite wall an upside-down and reversed image of the interior tableau.  For two weeks in October 2017, the work could be seen at the old studio room only by appointment. 

Work-in-progress at 80 East 11th Street #403.
Photograph: Deniz Tortum, 2017
Photograph:  Courtesy of Serkan Özkaya and Postmasters Gallery

On October 21 the  reconstruction went on public view at the Postmasters Gallery where it was supplemented by additional pieces related to Özkaya's theory on Duchamp.  The exhibit is entitled We Will Wait which may be a word play on the pronunciation of  Étant donnés.  "Waiting" in french is "En attendant." 

We Will Wait. Photo illustration by Brett Beyer and Lal Bahcecioglu. 2017.
Photograph:  Courtesy of Serkan Özkaya and Postmasters Gallery

Özkaya is an artist concerned with issues of appropriation, calling attention to the meaning of originals and copies.  Other works in the show illustrate these questions and leave viewers much to ponder.  His replications of the photographer Denise Browne Hare's two prints of the Duchamp's closed and open studio door, #403 (exterior) and #403 (interior) are a case in point.  The photos of Hare and Özkaya are framed side by side.  Hare's door, photographed at more innocent times, lacks the extra security lock above the entry doorknob and the viewer peephole that are captured in Özkaya's shots.  

This viewer saw the room-size installation at both the Duchamp studio and gallery venues.  I could not make out Duchamp's portrait but picked out what appeared to be eyes.  Whether this vision was deliberate or by chance I don't know.  No matter, portrait or no portrait, the exhibition and premise is intriguing.  The show merits attention.  What you see is up to you.  C'est la vie.  

*The full title of Duchamp's work is Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau / 2° le gas d'éclairage (translated as Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas).  The complete medium description is mixed media assemblage: (exterior) wooden door, iron nails, bricks, and stucco; (interior) bricks, velvet, wood, parchment over an armature of lead, steel, brass, synthetic putties and adhesives, aluminum sheet, welded steel-wire screen, and wood; peg-board, hair, oil paint, plastic, steel binder clips, plastic clothespins, twigs, leaves, glass, plywood, brass piano hinge, nails, screws, cotton, collotype prints, acrylic varnish, chalk, graphite, paper, cardboard, tape, pen ink, electric light fixtures, gas lamp (Bec Auer type), foam rubber, cork, electric motor, cookie tin, and linoleum.  The dimensions are  95 1/2 × 70 × 49 in. (242.6 × 177.8 × 124.5 cm).  

Serkan Õzkaya
We Will Wait
October 21, 2017 - November 25, 2017
54 Franklin Street, Manhattan
Hours:
Tuesday - Saturday 11:00 am - 6:00 pm
Thursdays hours extended 11:00 am - 8:00 pm

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?"