Portrait of Stevenson by Sargent acquired by the Crystal Bridges Museum

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife, 1885
Oil on canvas - 51.4 x 61.6 cm
Bentonville (Arkansas), Crystal Bridges Museum
of American Art
Photo : Sotheby’s New York

4/11/08 — Acquisition — Bentonville, Arkansas, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — With a population of only 34,000 the town of Bentonville is known mainly for being the headquarters of the retail conglomerate, Walmart. Four years ago, Alice Walton, heiress to the group, founded the Crystal Bridges Museum there which is currently under construction and due to open in 2009. In the meantime, the most important works in the future permanent collection are on deposit in various prestigious American institutions (see news item of 8/6/07).

Last October 21st, the museum announced the acquisition of one of John Singer Sargent’s most famous paintings, the portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife (ill.) [1].
The work is from 1885 when the painter visited the Scottish writer at his cottage in Skerryvore, Bournemouth. The artist was fleeing the French and English capitals, still caught up in the scandal set off by the exhibition of Madame X at the Salon. This is the second portrait of the author of Treasure Island by Sargent (the first one, from 1884 was destroyed ; a third one from 1887 is at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati). The model, convalescing, is crossing the room ; his wife, Fanny is sitting on the right, a bit in the background, typically modern in its off-center composition inspired from both Japanese engravings and the example found in portraits by Carolus-Duran and Whistler.

The painting was presented in 1887 to the New English Art Club at the Dudley Art Gallery, which was a showcase for French Impressionist influence in London, with the sub-title “a sketch”. It belongs in fact to the group of so-called informal portraits, generally of friends, painted in a spontaneous manner, impromptu sketches which were then offered to the sitter. They form a sharp contrast with the official portraits which Sargent went on to paint later in his career.

The canvas was acquired by Mrs. Payne Whitney in 1914 at the sale of items belonging to Stevenson’s daughter and remained in this family of patrons for 90 years. It was then auctioned at the Whitney estate sale by Sotheby’s New York on 19 May 2004 for $8.8 million (including charges). The work has been included in many exhibitions and the European public was able to enjoy it last year during the different stops of the stimulating exhibition Sargent-Sorolla [2].

Version française

Michel de Piles, mardi 4 novembre 2008


[1] Elaine Kilmurray, Richard Ormond, John Singer Sargent : complete paintings, The Early Portraits, New Haven, 1998, n° 162, p. 9, 158, 162, 164, 167-169.

[2] Catalogue of the exhibition Sargent/Sorolla. Peintres de la lumière, under the supervision of Tomas Llorens, Paris-Musées, 2007, p. 23 and 305, n° 3.

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