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.