The mother I thought of this Mother’s Day was Fanny van de Grift Osbourne Stevenson, or plain, unvarnished Fanny Stevenson. She often swirls around my head.
Fanny fascinates me. Her resourcefulness impresses me. A woman of strong views, and many paradoxes, blade-straight, shunning deceit, nursing with dedication those she loved, rolling up her sleeves to tackle work needing done, hands calloused with clearing swamp and jungle, roughened by making furniture for the shacks and apartments in which she stayed. A woman who created gardens from wildernesses, who loved colour, Polynesian garments and old Mexican jewellery, who cooked, painted and wrote with verve and even charmed her new husband’s straight-laced father. A woman who became the doyen of the San Francisco avant garde in the early years of the twentieth century. A woman with talent for whom life was always a challenge.
Before there was a rail link across America she followed her gold prospecting husband from east coast to west, from Indiana to San Francisco via the Isthmus of Panama. She lived in a shack before retreating back to Virginia City. Eventually leaving her philandering husband she returned to San Francisco where she attended classes at the San Francisco School of Design.
Fanny arrived with her family at Paris’ Gare du Nord in October 1875, the disastrous Franco Prussian war and the bloody conflict over the Commune had left their marks on the city. Historic landmarks as well as new buildings had been destroyed or ravaged by flames, those still standing pockmarked by bullet holes.
After the death of her young son, Hervey, a friend suggested Fanny spend some time in Grez-sur-Loing, one of the many villages near Paris where artists spent their summers, putting into practice what had been learnt in ateliers and studios during winter months. It was in Grez that she met Stevenson, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Grez remains a sleepy rural village, situated about thirty five miles south of Paris. The nearest station, the unmanned Bourron-Marlotte, is said to be three kilometres away. But a lack of information both in Paris and at station, meant we took long circuitous routes through the trees of the Forest of Fontainebleau or alongside a major road with no bus or taxis available. As the overcast May day gave way to torrential rain we became soaked to the skin, our shoes filled with fine white sand.
The Hotel Chevillon, where Fanny, Stevenson and many other artists stayed, looked dishevelled in the downpour. The grey painted hotel with white wooden shutters, now belonging to a Scandinavian arts foundation, showed no signs of life. Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, her son Sam and daughter Belle stayed here for three summers, painting, relaxing in the garden or boating on the river, returning to Paris for the winter.
The scenery of Grez inspired many artists, not least Fanny who, like many others,
painted the bridge.
Louis and Fanny spent their last winter in Paris together a 5 rue Ravignon, the street where thirteen years later Charles Conder the controversial English born artist who spent many years in Australia, took up residence.
A young Pablo Picasso later found studio and accommodation there too, naming the place the ‘Bateau Lavoir’, the floating wash-house.
Fanny liked younger men. Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish writer who became her second husband, was ten years younger than she was. When, after Stevenson’s death, she settled in San Francisco, her companion was twenty three year old Ned Field, a journalist with Hearst newspapers. This liking of younger men must have passed from mother to daughter, as after Fanny’s death Belle, her fifty six year old daughter, married thirty four year old Ned.
Some woman! Some daughter!
Hope you all had a great Mother’s Day.