Robert Louis Stevenson
Augustus St. Gaudens, bronze
medallion of Robert Louis
Stevenson Posed for in
Stevenson’s rooms at the
Hotel St. Stephen
Robert Louis Stevenson visited New York in 1887 and stayed at the Hotel St. Stephen, where he received visitors. Among them was American sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens, for whom Stevenson posed.
As described in The American Art Journal in 1972:
Back in New York in 1887 he [St. Gaudens] welcomed the opportunity to do a portrait of the poet Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson had come to the United States for treatment of his tuberculosis, and a mutual friend, the painter Will H. Low, arranged for Saint-Gaudens to meet him. Thus Saint-Gaudens began the sketches with Stevenson propped up in bed. The first completed portrait in 1889, a rectangular version, was inscribed with the poem Stevenson dedicated to Will Low from his “Underwoods” collection. This portrait was adapted to a circular medallion (originally three feet in diameter and later reduced in size) which was so successful that Saint-Gaudens had it copied for resale many times. After Stevenson’s death, Saint-Gaudens executed the memorial tablet for St. Giles’ Church in Edinburgh (unveiled I905). The circular version (Fig. 14), which he preferred, is quite an improvement over the earlier rectangular one (Fig. 15) which overemphasized the bedding. The three heavy blocks of inscription also detracted from the portrait. By reworking the inscription so that it flows down the edge in an arc, and by cutting off the bed, the sculptor regained the emphasis on the subject and improved the total effect. However, he returned to the longitudinal arrangement in the St. Giles Memorial; a much larger bas-relief which included an inscription with over one thousand letters. This length was awkward to say the least, but in keeping with the elogia often encountered in church memorials.
Another writer describes the meeting of the two men in Stevenson’s rooms at the Albert:
In 1887, while [Stevenson’s play] The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde played the Broadway stage, they met in Stevenson’s room at the Hotel Albert in New York. The sculptor found the writer “astonishingly young, not a bit like an invalid . . . and a bully fellow.” The writer saw before him a face “like an Italian Cinquecento medallion.” They took to each other quickly and exchanged ideas during the numerous sittings. Saint-Gaudens complained that he had “never had time to do a nude statue,” and Stevenson, quoting Emerson, dubbed him the “God-like sculptor.”
There has been some confusion over whether Stevenson stayed at the Albert or at the adjoining St. Stephen hotel. Many writers say it was the Albert. One wrote about Stevenson’s stay at the hotel:
The success of the play increased the number of the autograph hunters and the curious who laid siege to the Albert Hotel.
And it is known that after Stevenson’s death, his widow spent time at the Albert, as reported in the New York Times in 1898, though by that year the St Stephen had been incorporated into the Albert so she might have been in either building:
Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson, widow of the novelist, who has been ill at the Hotel Albert, University Place and Eleventh Street, was reported as greatly improved yesterday. Mrs. Stevenson came to New York about a month ago. She has several friends here, and intended spending a few weeks with them before going to London to assist Sidney Colvin in getting out a book on the life and work of her husband.
St. Gaudens himself called it the Albert, in his reminiscences, as augmented by his son Homer, in which St. Gaudens describes their meetings in Stevenson’s rooms at the Albert:
It is singular how one will forget important things. I was about to overlook my experience with Robert Louis Stevenson, which took place in the autumn of 1887. Shortly before this time my friend, Mr. Wells, a man of infinite taste and judgment, great learning and delightful conversation, as well as a keen lover and appreciator of music, drew my attention to the New Arabian nights, by a young author just making himself known. I am, unfortunately, very little of a reader, but my introduction to these stories set me aflame as have few things in literature. So when I subsequently found that my friend, Mr. Low, knew Stevenson quite well, I told him that, 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. It was but a few weeks after this that Stevenson arrived in America on his way to the Adirondacks. He accepted my offer at once, and I began the medallion at his rooms in the Hotel Albert in Eleventh Street, not far from where I lived in Washington Place. All I had the time to do from him then was the head, which I modeled in five sittings of two or three hours each. These were given me in the morning, while he, as was his custom, lay in bed propped up with pillows, and either read or was read to by Mrs. Stevenson.
I can remember some few things as to my personal impressions of him. He said that he believed “Olala” to be his best story, or that he fancied it the best, and that George Meredith was the greatest English litterateur of the time. Also he told me of his pet-liking for his own study of Robert Burns. He gave me a complete set of his own works, in some of which he placed a line or two. In “Virginibus Puerisque,” he wrote, “Read the essay on Burns. I think it is a good thing.” Thus the modest man!
Again at the end of one of the sittings, as I was about to go out, he rose from his bed and we chatted concerning some commercial arrangement he had his mind on. He asked my advice. I gave it, such as it was, parenthetically observing, “Oh, well, everything is right and everything is wrong.”
While I was speaking, he had entered a little closet to wash his hands. He came out wiping them.
“Yes, yes, that is true, that is true,” he said continuing to rub his fingers. “Yes, everything is right and everything is wrong.”
I also recall his saying, “The man who has not seen the dawn every day of his life has not lived.” And again, in speaking of crossing the ocean and traveling by sea, he referred to its charm and danger and added, “The man who has not taken his life in his hands at some time or other, has not lived.”
In connection with this vein in his personality, I remember visiting him one evening when he lay on his bed in the half-gloom, the lamp being in another room. I sat on the bed’s edge, barely able to discern his figure in the dimness. He talked in the monotonous tone one frequently assumes when in the twilight, speaking of his keen admiration for Lawrence, Governor of India. Then I first realized his reverence for men of action, men of affairs, soldiers, and administrators. Moreover, he said with great feeling that his chief desire in the world was the power to knock down a man who might insult him, and that perhaps the most trying episode in his life was one in which he had a conversation with a man which, had it taken a certain direction, would have left no alternative but one of personal altercation in which he himself could present but a pitiable figure. This impressed me as being the most feeling thing he ever said to me.
St. Gaudens’ son, Homer, wrote of the medallion’s popularity, and the various versions that existed of it:
The medallion of Stevenson was probably one of the most popular works my father created, and as the demand for it continued without interruption, Saint-Gaudens remodeled it in a number of forms, culminating in the large relief placed, in memory of the author, on the wall of St. Giles Church, Edinburgh, Scotland. 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 the 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.
Despite the confusion about the identity of the hotel at which Stevenson stayed, evidence irrefutably points to the St. Stephen. An account in 1915 called “On the Trail of Stevenson” clearly indicates that the hotel in question was the St. Stephen:
On April 16, 1888, Stevenson left Saranac Lake, considerably helped in health, and returned to New York City His presence in the metropolis was confided only to a few people; and much of his time was spent in bed, not because of illness, but merely because this habit contributed to his seclusion. Saint-Gaudens, moreover, was sketching him in bed for the medallion.
At this time, Louis lived for two weeks at the Hotel St. Stephen’s, in East Eleventh Street, near University Place. This hotel was not unnoted in its day: it was, for instance, the residing-place of Mrs. Jefferson Davis for several years after the Civil War. After Stevenson’s time, it became incorporated with the Hotel Albert, which stands immediately adjacent to it, at the corner of University Place. At a still later period, the building of the Hotel St. Stephen’s was abandoned. It is still standing; but it has been vacant for several years, and its deserted and decadent aspect is of little interest to the literary pilgrim. No one now resident at the Hotel Albert was there in 1888, and no record of Stevenson’s stay has been retained in the archives of the office.
I have talked with several people who called upon R.L.S. at the Hotel St. Stephen’s. Mr. John S. Phillips and Mr. Oliver Herford have both transmitted the impression of a certain incongruity between his habit of sitting up in bed and the energy and vigour of his personality. Louis spent nearly an entire afternoon on a bench in Washington Square conversing with Mark Twain; and New Yorkers who desire to trace his very footsteps may also be informed, on the authority of Mr. Herford, that Stevenson frequented the old Cafe Martin, at the corner of University Place and Ninth Street.
The description in this account of the vacant St. Stephen Hotel, in 1915, jibes with that building’s history.
Another account, in 1922, by Stevenson’s American publisher S.S. McClure, publisher of McClure’s Magazine and a member of the Stevenson Society, who actually visited Stevenson in his hotel decades earlier:
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: This is going to be a terribly scattered talk but I will do my best. I want to explain that my relations with Mr. Stevenson were, at first entirely in connection with my business, just casual and incidental. In 1887 I was struggling with my newspaper syndicate and I had a most beloved rival and enemy, Mr. Irving Bacheller. In the spring of 1887 I heard that he was going abroad to get material from English writers, and consequently I, too, sailed for England, and under an assumed name. Before I sailed, Charles De Kay, brother-in-law of Richard Watson Gilder, told me about a very remarkable story of adventure, “Kidnapped,” that had been published in England. I read the book and was greatly delighted with it, and as soon as I got to London in February, 1887, I wrote to Stevenson at Bournemouth. I never got an answer. But late in the summer of that same year a young man came into my office in New York and said he was Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s stepson, and that Stevenson had mislaid my letter and so had never been able to answer it. Stevenson was then at the Hotel St. Stephen on West Eleventh Street, New York.
Mrs. McClure and I called upon him, accordingly. He received us in bed, very much in the attitude of the Saint-Gaudens medallion: he looked frail but not sick. The thing about his appearance that most struck me was the unusual width of his brow, and the fact that his eyes were so very far apart. He wore his hair long.
Well, there is the Stevenson as he is seen in all his pictures, and as those of you who have seen him know him. I got from him at that time some stories that had already been published in England, and some wonderful essays, unequalled in some respects in our language.
McClure wrote a similar version of the meeting in his autobiography, published in 1915:
…But late in the summer of that year, a young man came into my office in the Tribune Building, in New York, asked to see me, and introduced himself as Lloyd Osbourne. He said he was the stepson of Robert Louis Stevenson, and that Mr. Stevenson had received a letter from me which he had never been able to answer because he had mislaid it and did not remember the address; but that Stevenson was in New York, at the Hotel St. Stephen on Eleventh Street, and would be glad to see me.
Mrs. McClure and I called upon Stevenson, accordingly, and were taken to his room, where he received us in bed, very much in the attitude of the St. Gaudens medallion, for which he was then posing. We had a pleasant call, but there was nothing very unusual about it. Stevenson, though he was in bed, did not seem ill; he looked frail but not sick. The thing about his appearance that most struck me was the unusual width of his brow, and the fact that his eyes were very far apart. He wore his hair long. Stevenson was already a famous man; the publication of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” had made him so.
But the final proof is in Stevenson’s letter, of 1887, which is dated “Hotel St. Stephen, New York”:
To Sidney Colvin [24 September 1887 – Hotel St. Stephen, New York]
My dear S.C., Your delightful letter has just come, and finds me in a New York hotel, waiting the arrival of a sculptor (St Gaudens) who is making a medallion of yours truly and who is (to boot) one of the handsomest and nicest fellows I have often seen. I caught a cold on the Banks; fog is not for me; nearly died of interviewers and visitors, during twenty-four hours in New York…..
--here I was interrupted by the arrival of my sculptor – I withdraw calling him handsome; he is not quite that, his eyes are too near together; he is only remarkable looking, and like an Italian cinque-cento medallion; I have begged him to make a medallion of himself and give me a copy – I will not take up the sentence in which I as wandering so long; but begin fresh…