Stevenson and the muse

Stevenson and the Muse by Will H. Low, 1923


Will Hickock Low, a former president of the Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake, knew Barbizon best among the English-speaking artists who gravitated to Siron’s Inn at the northern entrance to the French National Forest of Fontainebleau in the summer of 1875. He had been there first, in 1873, when he shared a cramped apartment in the loft of a peasant house with a fellow American art student, Wyatt Eaton. One of their neighbors, just down the one street that was then Barbizon, was the aging French master landscape painter, Jean Francois Millet. Low had idolized Millet for years, ever since reading a certain magazine article on a train between New York City and his hometown up the Hudson, Albany.

By the time Will first sailed for France, all his friends knew that he held Millet to be “the greatest of modern painters.” Stories of the great man’s inaccessibility didn’t seem to apply to the two young Americans in Barbizon and the conversation and hospitality they enjoyed more than once in the master’s house was featured in Low’s book, “A Chronicle of Friendships.”

Robert Louis Stevenson’s colorful cousin Bob Stevenson made his first Barbizon appearance in the summer of 1874 and he, too, thanks to Low, got to meet J.F. Millet in his house. But by the spring of 1875, Will Low’s nominee for greatest painter of our time had run out of time, as in dead. Meanwhile, Bob Stevenson was returning to Barbizon with his other component part, cousin Louis, and things were changing. Will blamed the change on “the advent of the Anglo-Saxon … the change in the character of life that Eaton and I led in Barbizon was sufficiently marked, when, in 1875, the first considerable contingent of English-speaking students came to the village.”

About this time, Low and Eaton drifted apart. The new crowd at Siron’s included the two Stevensons and that was enough for Low to take one of its rooms. Eaton stayed with the peasantry and eventually returned to the U.S.A. where he made a good reputation in portraiture before joining the list of artists who die too young. In the spring of 1888 Eaton executed a popular likeness of RLS about the time of the latter’s return to the real world, fresh from his Siberian-like exile in Saranac Lake.

Meanwhile, back to Siron’s Inn, in the summer of 1875, “Anglais” became the generic word used by the resident French, Belgians, Swedes and Hungarians for the loud group that had taken over one of the long tables in the courtyard.

“They communicated,” said Low, “in their own language instead of that of the country in general use among the poly-national majority present, and conducted themselves with a freedom unattainable to them in their native land.”

A sub-group of the Anglais happened to be Will Low, the two Stevensons, an Englishman named Henry Enfield, a Frank O’Meara from Ireland, and from Scotland, Walter Simpson or Sir Walter Grindlay Simpson, better known to his friends as “Bart.”

Robert Louis Stevenson and Bart went way back to when they were little boys living and playing together within sight of Queen St. Gardens in the ‘New Town’ part of Edinburgh, Scotland. Louis had known Bart’s father, Professor of Medicine James Young Simpson, the Simpson who had pioneered the anesthetic uses of chloroform. His risky research techniques like passing around tumblers of chloroform to party guests in his home, including himself, made him rich. In recognition of Simpson’s contribution to medicine, the Crown decided to call him ‘Sir’–Professor Sir James Young Simpson–and bestowed on him a baronetcy which Bart inherited when his father died in 1870. Sir Bart had money but not much ambition. For the sake of doing something, he, too, at the same time as RLS, had studied Law at Edinburgh University and became a licensed advocate for the Scottish bar. Like Louis, Bart couldn’t see himself walking around an institution every day wearing a wig and gown. What dawned on him as a more practical course was to follow Louis to have fun in the sun in and around the Forest of Fontainebleau in France. A few years later Robert Louis Stevenson would remember the way Bart’s father had experimented on himself with drugs in his own home when he was conjuring up a fictional Dr. Jekyll AKA Mr. Hyde.


Fontainebleau, the plain and the forest, were brand new to Bart and Louis that dreamlike summer of 1875. It was Will Low’s third season and he would say until he stopped talking that “I doubt if in any part of the world so spacious and gracious a working-place has been provided for the artist as in around the borders of the Forest of Fontainebleau.” The old friends, Bart and Louis, were together much and often tagged along with Will as he set forth daily to forest or plain with his easel and tools to study from Nature. “Ah! That plain,” he would say, “what lessons of form it has taught its earnest students.” Of the forest, “Here in the depths at spacious intervals, one may find all varieties of forest scenery.”

While Low tinkered with his tools and colors, he said his two friends “would lie prone on the ground basking in the sunshine, or, from my station, would take walks, returning late in the day, when we would walk homeward together.” That was after all the summer of Forest Notes, 1875. “We were living the life described in this essay … long afternoons spent with him in the woods, his book thrown aside, the long fingers twisting cigarettes of threadlike dimensions … the constant flow of talk and interchange of thought come back to me like the opening chapters of a book, which one has perused with increasing delights … one passage recalls the sketch of mine that in colour is the only proof we have that Louis’ hair was ever light.”

Robert Louis Stevenson would remember that particular afternoon when he got to writing Forest Notes. While taking a break from playing in the woods with Sir Bart, Louis had fallen asleep “down in the bay between two spreading beech-roots with a book, to be awakened all of a sudden by a friend (Will): ‘I say, just keep where you are, will you? You make the jolliest motive.’ And you reply: ‘Well, I don’t mind, if I may smoke.’ And thereafter the hours go idly by. Your friend at the easel labors doggedly, a little way off, in the wide shadow of the tree; and yet farther, across a strait of glaring sunshine, you see another painter, encamped in the shadow of another tree, and up to his waist in the fern. You cannot watch your own effigy growing out of the white trunk and the trunk beginning to stand forth from the rest of the wood, and the whole picture getting dappled over with the flecks of sun, that slip through the leaves overhead, and as a wind goes by and sets the trees a-talking…”

“‘You can get up now,’ says the painter; ‘I’m at the background.’ And so you get up, stretching yourself, and go your way into the wood, the daylight becoming richer and more golden, and the shadows stretching further into the open…Out of unknown thickets comes forth the soft, secret, aromatic odour of the woods, not like a smell of the free heaven, but as though court ladies, who had known these paths in ages long gone by, still walked in the summer evenings, and shed, from their brocades, a breath of musk or bergamot upon the woodland winds.”

Did the mention of “court ladies” in Stevenson’s Forest Notes account for Low’s addition of a mysterious female with parasol next to Louis under the beech tree in his woodland scene oil sketch? Maybe the answer is waiting to be discovered in the numerous letters Low wrote many years later to the secretary of the Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake, Livingston Chapman. Unfortunately, the artist’s writing is miniscule like in hard to read and they remain largely unread in the World HQ of the Stevenson Society at Baker’s.

By the time Will Low wrapped up said open air sketch in the woods, the sun was going down and Autumn was closing in. “Another summer had fled, our little company at Barbizon had dispersed, Louis and Sir Walter Simpson had returned to Scotland, and others of us were again domiciled in Paris.”

Forty-eight years came and went before a retired, 71 year old Will Low got around to dragging that old sketch out of storage. That was in 1923, when his old forest friend from Fontainebleau had already been lying dead “under the wide and starry sky” for twenty-nine years. From it he preserved that bygone late summer afternoon of their youth with a finished painting that covers sixteen square feet of wall space in the little room at Baker’s that Stevenson had called “my study” when he was a patient of Dr. Trudeau. Today it still hangs exactly where Low said it should go. It is the first thing visitors see when they enter the memorial as they reluctantly reach for their wallets to pay the controversial price of admission.

The composition of the 1923 version is consistent with the original sketch from 1875 except for one glaring exception. The inquisitive looking young woman in contemporary dress of the first version has been supplanted by a female figure with an entirely different aspect, an ethereal vision, an invisible source of inspiration, a being only seen in art, one of the nine sister goddesses of Greek mythology presiding over song and poetry, etc. She is why the painting is called Stevenson and the Muse.