John Singer Sargent painted Robert Louis Stevenson three times, but never so oddly as he did in this picture that also (half) includes Stevenson’s wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, while decisively excluding and marginalising her. Stevenson wrote of the painting:
“… 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… all this is touched in lovely, with that witty touch of Sargent’s; but of course, it looks dam [sic] queer as a whole.”
Stevenson had also once told a friend that his marriage to Fanny had left him “as limp as a lady’s novel”, and it seems Sargent agreed. He painted Stevenson as an awkward prisoner in his own home, “the caged animal lecturing about the foreign specimen in the corner.”1 Fanny’s view of the painting or of Sargent calling her a “foreign specimen” seems to be unrecorded, but I think it’s safe to guess that her first sight of this painting was probably a bit awkward and left poor Louis with some explaining to do.
The strange case of Mr Stevenson and Mr Hyde
It was around the time of this painting that Stevenson came up with his most famous and enduring work, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He apparently did so while delirious and bed-ridden, although most likely not while completely whacked out on drugs as has sometimes been suggested. We’ll probably never know for sure, but it certainly seems that in his delirium Stevenson inadvertently outed himself in ways that Sargent already understood but Stevenson possibly didn’t, otherwise he wouldn’t have allowed Jekyll and Hyde to be published at all. This painting certainly portrays several memorable and salient features of the story: there is schizoid compartmentalisation, visually it recalls the dirty, neglected back door “with no knocker” that only Hyde ever uses (no, Louis, I don’t think you need to be any more obvious), and its staging evokes a sense of profound alienation from domesticated heteronormative life.
In reality Stevenson may or may not have gone prowling the streets in search of rough trade, queerbashing and / or some other nonconsensual mixture of sex and violence as the fictional Hyde does; I’m thinking here particularly of Hyde’s murder of a man who approaches him in the street, “mauling” his “unresisting” body. Stevenson certainly takes the idea of doing it out for a long walk in Jekyll and Hyde. Many of the later adaptations try to do a pop Freudian whitewash of the Jekyll-superego by having him not know what the Hyde-Id does. By extension, this flatters the vain complacency of many in their audience by excusing the crimes and hypocrisies of privileged people in general. Stevenson’s original doesn’t do this at all. Jekyll remembers all too well what Hyde does, and Hyde conversely always knows he’s Jekyll’s excuse, his permission, his alibi for sex and violence. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are not two people; in truth there is only one person, trying to evade responsibility for his own desires and actions.
I’m not getting a very sexy feeling from either of these paintings, but apparently “male appreciation of Stevenson was often intensely physical” among his heterosexual and homosexual bohemian friends alike.2 Scots literary critic Andrew Lang claimed that Stevenson had “the power of making other men fall in love with him.”3 Or are we just speaking about ourselves, Andy darling?
Possibly it’s this charismatic factor that led to such an extraordinarily unflattering portrait of the Stevenson marriage; perhaps something about Fanny interposing herself between him and this streak of lanky, sickly, moustachioed Scottish stick-insect sex just brought out the bitchy queen in Sargent. Sargent was the kind of gentleman who at the time was (and amazingly still is, sometimes) politely referred to as a confirmed bachelor. He had his own double life enforced by an intolerant, anti-homosexual legal and moral framework in Victorian Britain, which even then was spoken of as counterproductive and an invitation to blackmail, wrecked lives or suicide. A fellow painter called Jacques-Émile Blanche (also a friend of equally confirmed bachelor Marcel Proust) was less polite when he described Sargent’s sex life: “notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger.” 4 Walter Sickert in turn described Blanche as “liable to twist things he hears or doesn’t into monstrous fibs.”5 Again, the truth of these matters may never be known, but the cattiness of artists and writers about each other’s private lives has certainly not changed much in the last century or so. We love to judge and bitch and have a go.
Sickert has been (not very plausibly, and particularly implausibly by the novelist Patricia Cornwell) fingered as Jack the Ripper, a real life Mr Hyde, mainly on the basis of his Camden Town murder paintings. Tip to Cornwell: like Stevenson’s fiction about hooking up with rough trade while maintaining a bourgeois social life, Sickert’s public, artistic musings on murder are probably the best indication that he wasn’t actually doing anything about it in the real world. This is pure anecdata, but it’s been my experience that those successful writers and artists whose work is the most disturbing or transgressive are usually the nicest and most balanced people in person. All the darkness goes into the work. They don’t want it or need it in their lives. David Lynch is spoken of as a lovely man by anyone who’s ever worked with him or had the pleasure of meeting him, for example. I met him once, very briefly, and he definitely wasn’t Frank Booth even though he reportedly couldn’t stop laughing while he was shooting the notorious scene in Blue Velvet where Dennis Hopper as Frank rapes Isabella Rosselini’s character while huffing gas and alternately demanding to be daddy and baby. Lynch was profoundly odd in person, but he was also incredibly charming, humble and funny. I also heard a nice story about him dismissing journalists on a press junket for one of his own films so he could devote his full attention to some fans who’d shown up.
In any case we come full circle to Mr Hyde again, and we begin to understand why Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde took such a powerful grip of the 19th century imagination; even if he was just indulging what many of us would now regard as a natural sexual orientation rather than a sinful abberation, almost every respectable gentleman could plausibly be or was forced to be living a double life. And hardly any gentleman could remain a gentleman unless he had something or someone to blame.
1 (Stanley Olson, John Singer Sargent, 1986)
2 (Jenni Calder, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Life Study, 1980)
3 (Andrew Lang, Adventures Among Books, 1903)
4 (Trevor Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist, 2001)
5 (Wendy Baron, Miss Ethel Sands and Her Circle, 1977)