Knowledge is never wasted except on those too lazy to use it: Augustus Saint Gaudens produced exquisite portrait reliefs throughout his career using skills he learned at age thirteen, as a cameo-cutter. One of Saint Gaudens’s most popular portrait reliefs shows Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish author whose Treasure Island, A Child’s Garden of Verses, Kidnapped, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were bestsellers in the 1880s.
After reading Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights, Saint Gaudens told painter Will Low, a mutual friend, that he’d like to be introduced to Stevenson. The men took an immediate liking to each other. Stevenson, Low, and Saint Gaudens chatted through seven sittings for this portrait relief, which shows Stevenson in a characteristic pose: propped up in bed, with leaves of manuscript on his lap and a cigarette in his hand. The Metropolitan Museum owns a cast of this original version.
Above the figure in this version are lines from a poem by Stevenson dedicated to Will Low.
Youth now flees on feathered foot
Faint and fainter sounds the flute …
Where hath fleeting beauty led?
To the doorway of the dead
Life is over, life was gay
We have come the primrose way. (Rest of poem in More, below)
A little depressing, yes. Stevenson traveled to America in 1887-1888 seeking a cure for tuberculosis. There was none: although the bacterium that caused TB had been identified in 1882, the first effective antibiotic against the disease (streptomycin) wasn’t created until 1944. But you have to try, while you can … From America, Stevenson sailed to the south Pacific, where in 1894 he received a copy of the Saint Gaudens tondo. He died in Samoa a few months later, age 44.
Saint Gaudens wrote to Low in 1887:
My episode with Stevenson has been one of the events of my life and I can now understand the state of mind G— [?] gets in about people. I am in that beatific state. It makes me very happy and as the pursuit of happiness is an ‘inalienable right’ ‘God-given’ ‘one and indivisible’ vide Constitution of the United States I’m damned if I don’t think I’ve a right to be so provided I don’t injure anyone. Yours St G [Low, A Chronicle of Friendships 1873-1900, p. 394; see Chapters XXXII and XXXV for more on Saint Gaudens and Stevenson]
The year Stevenson died, the Church of St. Giles in Edinburgh commissioned Saint Gaudens to create a rectangular version of the portrait. Saint Gaudens replaced the cigarette with a quill pen, and used a different Stevenson quote for the background:
Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind, spare to us our friends, soften to us our enemies. (More here)
- My go-to book on Saint Gaudens is Burke Wilkinson’s Uncommon Clay: The Life and Works of Augustus Saint Gaudens, with photos by the fabulous David Finn. Chapter 21 has more details on Saint Gaudens, Stevenson, and Low. One of my favorite Saint Gaudens reliefs is the Children of Jacob H. Schiff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- In 1911, N.C. Wyeth did a set of wonderful illustrations for Stevenson’s Treasure Island: they’re my standard for what children’s book illustrations can and ought to be. The Brandywine River Museum’s site has high-res images. For more N.C. Wyeth illustrations, see here.
- The Kindle edition of Stevenson’s collected works that I own (with an N.C. Wyeth image on the cover!) is here. The Delphi edition is probably also very good: I’ve used them for other 19th-century authors.
- This is the whole of the poem of which a few lines are included on the original Saint Gaudens relief of Stevenson. Dedicated to the American painter Will Low, it was published by Stevenson in his 1887 collection Underwoods (online here).
Youth now flees on feathered foot.
Faint and fainter sounds the flute,
Rarer songs of gods; and still
Somewhere on the sunny hill,
Or along the winding stream,
Through the willows, flits a dream;
Flits, but shows a smiling face,
Flees, but with so quaint a grace,
None can choose to stay at home,
All must follow, all must roam.
This is unborn beauty: she
Now in air floats high and free,
Takes the sun and breaks the blue;—
Late with stooping pinion flew
Raking hedgerow trees, and wet
Her wing in silver streams, and set
Shining foot on temple roof:
Now again she flies aloof,
Coasting mountain clouds and kiss’t
By the evening’s amethyst.
In wet wood and miry lane,
Still we pant and pound in vain;
Still with leaden foot we chase
Waning pinion, fainting face;
Still with grey hair we stumble on,
Till, behold, the vision gone!
Where hath fleeting beauty led?
To the doorway of the dead.
Life is over, life was gay:
We have come the primrose way.
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