In this elegant portrait, Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894), suffering from tuberculosis, lies in bed with a manuscript in one hand and a cigarette in the other. On the left are verses from one of his poems.
Typical of Saint-Gaudens’s ability to render realistic detail is the contrast between the smooth texture of the pillowcases and the rough surface of the blanket. The ivy border reinforces the medallion’s circular format.
This portrait became one of Saint-Gaudens’s most popular works. To individualize the numerous castings, dedications were often added, as seen here in the inscription just behind the author’s head.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens: Renowned Portraitist in Bronze
Dublin-native Augustus Saint-Gaudens was raised in New York City after his Irish mother and French father immigrated to America, when he was six months old. He took classes at the Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design before traveling to Paris, where he studied at the École des Beaux Arts. He also studied art and architecture in Rome. Upon his return to the United States, Saint-Gaudens received critical acclaim for his monuments commemorating heroes of the American Civil War and his numerous funerary monuments and busts. His colossal Standing Lincoln in Lincoln Park, Chicago, is considered one of the finest portrait statues in America. It was followed by a seated statue of the president in Chicago’s Grant Park, a copy of which was placed by Lincoln’s tomb. Saint-Gaudens was an important teacher, tutoring privately and at the Art Students League of New York. He is also known for his portrait medallions and coin designs. Later in life, he founded the Cornish Colony in New Hampshire, which attracted numerous painters, architects, and sculptors, including Paul Manship, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, and the illustrator Maxfield Parrish. His house and gardens are preserved as Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.
Gaudens was taken by the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and said, “…if Stevenson ever crossed to this side of the water I should consider it an honor if he would allow me to make his portrait.” Stevenson came to America in 1887 and sat for Saint-Gaudens at the Hotel Albert in New York. This portrait relief became Saint-Gaudens’ most widely produced work. To avoid the effect of mass production in the numerous castings, Saint-Gaudens varied details of the portrait and its size. The sculptor shows the popular Scottish author reclining in bed, weakened by tuberculosis, a manuscript in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Typical of Saint-Gaudens’ reliefs are the lively variety of naturalist details, such as the contrast between the smooth pillowcase and the rougher blanket and bedclothes.