Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Robert Louis Stevenson


Not on display

Augustus Saint-Gaudens 1848–1907
Bronze and oak
Object: 1097 × 1097 × 70 mm
Presented by Miss Mary Hoadley Dodge 1919


Robert Louis Stevenson is a bronze tondo portrait relief by the Irish-born American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Most of the nearly circular pictorial space is occupied by a male figure, presumed to be the writer Stevenson, shown in profile from the left, clothed and sitting in bed. His back is almost straight and his head is upright and alert. Three cushions support the figure and bed covers are draped across the lower half of his body. His left hand steadies sheaves of paper that are balanced on his raised knees, while his right arm is bent at the elbow and poised with what appears to be a cigarette in his hand. He gazes into the distance, as if in contemplation. The top half of the portrait is framed with an ivy border, while the lower and right sides are edged by long rectangles representing the frame of the bed. The relief is mounted on a wooden backing and inscribed with the dedication ‘TO | SIDNEY COLVIN’, ‘ROBERT LOUIS | STEVENSON’. Further inscriptions include several stanzas from Stevenson’s 1887 collection of poems Underwoods, beginning ‘YOUTH NOW FLEES ON FEATHERED FOOT’, and these words fill the pictorial space into which Stevenson stares and above his head. The statement ‘COPYRIGHT BY AUGUSTUS ST GAUDENS 1892’ also appears towards the bottom of the relief.

Robert Louis Stevenson was made by Saint-Gaudens in c.1887–93. The artist had met Stevenson in the autumn of 1887 after reading his collection of short stories The New Arabian Nights (1882). Saint-Gaudens claimed the book ‘set me aflame as have few things in literature’ and he became determined to memorialise the author (quoted in Tolles 2010, p.229). The two were introduced by a mutual friend, the American painter William H. Low, in New York and Saint-Gaudens began work on the relief immediately. At this point Saint-Gaudens only had time to model Stevenson’s head, over the course of five short sittings at Stevenson’s rooms in the Hotel Albert, before Stevenson’s visit to New York concluded. The following year Saint-Gaudens visited Stevenson in New Jersey, where the writer was staying, to draw and cast the design for the relief, making the work larger and including Stevenson’s hands (Tolles 2010, p.229). A commercially successful bronze, the relief was issued in unlimited editions in varying dimensions (Tolles 2010, p.229). This version is dedicated to Sidney Colvin, then Keeper of the Print Room at the British Museum, London. The artist later remodelled it in a number of forms, concluding with a large memorial relief housed at St Giles’s Cathedral, Edinburgh: the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial 1904 (reproduced in Tolles 2010, p.230).

Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin to a French father and an Irish mother. When he was six months old the family emigrated to the United States. Saint-Gaudens was apprenticed to the French cameo maker Louis Avet in 1861, later working for Jules LeBreton, another cameo maker, while taking evening classes in drawing at the National Academy of Design and the Cooper Union, New York. In 1867–75 he travelled to Paris and Rome to further his artistic training. Upon his return to America in 1875 Saint-Gaudens launched his career in the making of public monuments with a celebrated statue of naval commander Admiral David Glasgow Farragut. Since American bronze founding was still in its infancy, Saint-Gaudens returned to Paris in 1877 to fulfil this new commission. The Farragut monument was eventually unveiled in Madison Square Park, New York, in 1881. Commissions for other public monuments followed, including those of Abraham Lincoln and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

Robert Louis Stevenson was exhibited in the Ninth Exhibition of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers at the New Gallery, London, from January to February 1909.

Further reading
Augustus Saint-Gaudens Memorial Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago 1909.
Eric Gibson, ‘Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the American Monument’, New Criterion, October 2009, pp.43–6.
Thayler Tolles, ‘“Mingled Feelings”: Augustus Saint-Gaudens, American Sculptors and Britain’, Visual Culture in Britain, vol.11, no.2, 2010, pp.219–37, reproduced p.230.

Beth Williamson
January 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Display caption

R.L.Stevenson, the Scottish writer and traveller, author of 'Treasure Island' and 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'. He suffered from tuberculosis, and in 1887-8 went to a clinic in America. Saint-Gaudens was then the leading American sculptor. He was an admirer of Stevenson's writing, and asked to make his portrait. Stevenson was too ill to leave his bed, but posed on cushions as if writing. Many copies were made of this relief. In some he holds a pen, and in others a cigarette. A poem from Stevenson's book of 1887 'Underwoods' is written on this cast. This portrait was given by Stevenson to his friend and editor Sidney Colvin, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Augustus Saint-Gaudens 1848-1907

N03431 Robert Louis Stevenson c.1887-93

Bronze relief, almost circular, 35 7/8 x 35 1/2 x 1 3/4 (91.2 x 90.2 x 4.5) on wooden backing
Presented by Miss Mary Hoadley Dodge 1919
Prov: Sir Sidney Colvin, London; Miss Mary Hoadley Dodge, London
Exh: Ninth Exhibition, International Society, New Gallery, London, January-February 1909 (329)
Lit: Sidney Colvin (ed.), The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson (London 1900), Vol.2, pp.65-6, 72, 77, 289-90, 305-6, 340; Royal Cortissoz, Augustus Saint-Gaudens (Boston-New York 1907), pp.17-18, 25, repr. p.25; C. Lewis Hind, Augustus Saint-Gaudens (London-New York 1908), pp.27-8, 40-1; Homer Saint-Gaudens (ed.), The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (London 1913), Vol.1, pp.373-8, 384-9, plaster repr. p.380; exh. catalogue Augustus Saint-Gaudens: the Portrait Reliefs, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, 1969, notes on nos.39-41
Repr: The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, LIV, 1897, p.189 (the plaster)

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94), the novelist, essayist, poet and traveller. Augustus Saint-Gaudens has described how he came to meet Stevenson in the autumn of 1887, after reading The New Arabian Nights. He had told his friend Will H. Low, who knew the author quite well, that if Stevenson ever crossed the Atlantic he would consider it an honour to make his portrait. Only a few weeks later, Stevenson arrived in America on his way to the Adirondacks and accepted the offer at once. All that Saint-Gaudens had time to do from him then was the head, which was modelled in five sittings of two or three hours each in Stevenson's rooms in the Hotel Albert in New York. Shortly afterwards Stevenson went to Saranac, then in April-May 1888 took a house at Manasquan, New Jersey. As he wanted to make the medallion large enough to include the hands, Saint-Gaudens paid at least one visit to Manasquan to make a drawing and some casts. Stevenson lay as usual on rather a high monumental bed and being asked to write something in order to assume a more natural pose, took advantage of the occasion to compose a charming letter addressed to the artist's son, Homer Saint-Gaudens, who was then a boy.

As the medallion of Stevenson became one of Saint-Gaudens' most popular works, the sculptor remodelled it in a number of forms, culminating in a large relief placed in memory of the author on the wall of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. According to Homer Saint-Gaudens, op. cit., p.384: 'First my father made the original head, slightly smaller than life-size. Then he designed an oblong composition which showed Stevenson propped up in bed, his manuscript before him, a cigarette in his hand, and which bore some of his verses beginning, "Youth now flees on feathered foot". Next followed a round variation, three feet in diameter, representing the whole bed, with the poem composed in a different form, and a winged Pegasus added. After that appeared other small replicas of the round and oblong forms, with the drapery and verses once more altered. And finally two arrangements of the big relief were created in which the bed gave place to a couch, the blanket to a rug, and, in deference to the site in a church, the cigarette to a quill pen, and the poem to a prayer.' Homer Saint-Gaudens subsequently added, in a letter to the compiler of 16 March 1953, that no two of these variations are ever alike, as slight changes were always made in the drapery or the lettering. The present version is dedicated to Sir Sidney Colvin (1845-1927), the Keeper of the Print Room at the British Museum. In a letter from Samoa dated 29 May 1893, Stevenson asked Saint-Gaudens for a 'couple of copies of my medallion, as gilt-edged and high-toned as it is possible to make them', one for himself and the other for his friend Sidney Colvin: this relief is presumably the latter. (It has a label on the back written and signed by Colvin and addressed to C.E. Hall? at the New Gallery). Further copies of the circular medallion of this size belong to the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire; the Metropolitan Museum, New York; the John Herron Art Institute, Indianapolis; Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey; the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York; and the Robert Louis Stevenson School, Carmel, California, among others. Such was the popularity of this bas-relief portrait, that Saint-Gaudens began in 1898 to make a series of reductions which were sold individually and at Tiffany's in New York and Doll and Richards in Boston. These included two smaller versions of the circular medallion, one about eighteen inches and the other about twelve inches in diameter (45.7 and 30.5cm respectively).

The poem beginning 'Youth now flees on feathered foot' which appears on this relief is from Stevenson's Underwoods published in 1887, and is dedicated to Will H. Low, who, as mentioned above, was a mutual friend of Stevenson and the sculptor.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.669-70, reproduced p.669

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