Fanny and Louis in Grez

wide starry sky

Nancy Horan, the bestselling author of Loving Frank, comes now with her long-awaited second novel, based on the nineteenth century love story between Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, a not-exactly-divorced American mother of three and the much younger writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

The pair met in the summer of 1875 in Grez, an art colony in France in the Fountainebleu Forest. Fanny had arrived in France the year before to escape her unhappy marriage and to study art alongside her 17 year-old daughter Belle.

Fanny and Belle were enjoying their studies in the women’s drawing classes at the Académie Julian alongside other international students, including May Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s little sister. (You can read more about May Alcott’s art studies and travels through France at my previous post, Little Women in Dinan.)

After enduring an unspeakable tragedy in Paris, Fanny decides to bring her children to Grez for some quiet recovery time in the country. A fellow art student at the Académie Julian suggested a quiet place, “an inn at Grez, on the Loing River. It’s close to Barbizon but away from all the bustle, and cheap. It’s near the Fountainebleu Forest.” Fanny talks her estranged husband from California into supporting them for one more year in Europe.

Nancy Horan describes Grez-sur-Loing well:

[N]estled in the midst of vast farm fields, the village was a smattering of stone houses, a picturesque bridge, and a ruined twelfth-century tower with ferns growing in its cracked walls.

During my year in France I loved to plan field trips to art history sites, and I just happened to spend a gray day in Grez myself. You can read another post (Visit an Art Colony in France: Grez-sur-Loing) about my trip to Grez, which includes directions and more information about the different artists who lived and painted there.

Here are some photos of Grez that readers of Under the Wide and Starry Sky and fans of Robert Louis Stevenson might especially enjoy:

Standing in front of the bridge at Grez-sur-Loing in 2012.

Standing in front of the bridge at Grez-sur-Loing in 2012. The picturesque  12th century Tour de Ganne is in the background.

The 17th century Tour de Ganne in Grez

The 12th century Tour de Ganne in Grez

The Tour de Ganne in Grez from the grassy walk down toward the river

The Tour de Ganne in Grez as seen from the grassy walk down toward the river

On the main street in Grez: Church of Our Lady and Saint Lawrence, 12th century

On the main street in Grez: Church of Our Lady and Saint Lawrence, 12th century

In the book, Nancy Horan has Fanny’s friend Margaret Wright tell her about the Hotel Chevillon in Grez, “one of the most bohemian of the bohemian gathering places near the Fountainebleu Forest.” Says Margaret:

Barbizon has become too fashionable. It’s overrun by poseurs more interested in the mis-en-scene than in producing any actual art. The real painters go to Grez. . . . And you needn’t worry. They will leave you alone, I think.

Little did Fanny know that the bohemians who enjoyed the summer season at Hotel Chevillon were dismayed to hear that an American woman and her children had arrived at the inn. Bob Stevenson (Robert Louis Stevenson’s cousin, and an artist in his own right) arrived ahead of the group of “Glasgow Boys” from Scotland with the intention of chasing Fanny away. In the book, Bob Stevenson hints Fanny might want to find other more suitable accommodations:

There’s an onslaught about to begin. . . . Once the others start to arrive you’ll discover this isn’t the place to be if you are hoping for a little peace. Madame Chevillon said you had come for the quiet. . . . There are places not far from here that would serve you much better if you are here to rest. . . .

But things would turn out much differently than the Stevensons had planned. Within a few short weeks, both of the Stevenson cousins would have a crush on Fanny. Although Fanny was 10 years older than Louis, they found comfort in each others hearts and minds. In the meantime, Fanny’s 17 year-old daughter Belle fell in love with the Irish artist Frank O’Meara.

The Hotel Chevillon still stands today, although it is not open to the public. It is a private art residency center operated by The Grez-sur-Loing Foundation in Sweden, which manages a stipend program for visiting artists, authors and photographers. There is even a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship available for interested writers (the application deadline for 2014 is February 28th, but it looks like it is limited to residents of Scotland.)

Hotel Chevillon is located on rue Carl Larsson, which is named after the Swedish painter.

Hotel Chevillon, the place where Fanny and Louis met,  is still standing! It is located on rue Carl Larsson, which is named after the Swedish painter. It was restored in 1994 and serves as an art center and residency program.

Hotel Chevillon: the place where Fanny Van de Grif Osbourne met Robert Louis Stevenson.

Hotel Chevillon from the street.

A view of the back balcony of Hotel Chevillon where Fanny, Louis and their fellow bohemians gathered to paint and relx by the river

A view of the back balcony of Hotel Chevillon from the nearby bridge. Just on the other side of this wall is where Fanny, Louis and their fellow bohemians gathered to paint and relax.

The backyard of the Hotel Chevillon today. Can you picture Fanny and Louis back there? Source: Carol Ferrelly,

The backyard of the Hotel Chevillon today. Can you picture Fanny and Louis back there back in the day? Source: Carol Ferrelly,

Hotel Chevillon by Sir John Lavery (1883), an Irish artist who visited Grez and painted this captivating picture of the garden at Hotel Chevillon.

Hotel Chevillon by Sir John Lavery (1883), an Irish artist who visited Grez. This painting captures the feel of the garden at Hotel Chevillon back in the time of Fanny and Louis. Source:

After their summer meeting in Grez, Fanny and her children returned to Paris, where they settled into an apartment in Montmartre. Louis would continue his pursuit of Fanny from Paris to California and beyond. They would finally marry in 1880 and spend their years traveling the world.

John Singer Sargent would paint a strange but perceptive portrait of RLS and Fanny when they were all living in Bournemouth, England in 1885. Apparently, Fanny was not too happy about the way she is marginalized and made to look so Moorish in this painting. As for me, I find it fascinating. What an odd pair.

Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife by John Singer Sargent (1885)

Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife by John Singer Sargent (1885)

Under The Wide and Starry Sky is an interesting portrait of an unorthodox and artistic couple from history, not unlike the story of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney. However, this love story didn’t seem nearly as compelling as Loving Frank, and I’m not sure why. Neither RLS nor Fanny are particularly admirable people, but then, neither were Frank and Mamah. For some reason, it bothered me that Fanny lacked any substantial talent or drive as an artist, that she acted so passively in the face of her son’s serious illness, and that she waffled over her commitment to a horrible marriage. Maybe it’s my mistake, expecting a 19th century woman to act with as much agency as a 21st century woman, but still, it interfered with my ability to identify and sympathize with Fanny. I have to admit, I take strange delight in the take-down Fanny suffers under the paintbrush of John Singer Sargent.

Even if Under the Wide and Starry Sky doesn’t measure up to Loving Frank, I would still recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, especially if you are interested in learning more about the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson or the 19th century art scene in Paris. And if you happen to be visiting Paris anytime soon, I highly recommend a day trip out to Grez.  

Visit an Art Colony in France: Grez-sur-Loing

Interested in a different day trip from Paris? Try visiting some scenic old art colonies in France. There is so much more to see besides Giverny. And these off-the-beaten-track places are much less crowded.

Venturing south of Paris you will find the old art colonies of the Fountainbleu Forest, including BarbizonGrez-sur-Loing, Moret-sur-Loing, Montigny-sur-Loing and Thomery. Here they are, mapped out on Google Maps. These villages make for a wonderful weekend or day trip from Paris. All you need is a good map, but for really easy travel, I prefer a rental car with GPS. (My own GPS travel tip: use the postal code of the city to which you’re traveling.) It is possible to visit all of these colonies in one day, but if you prefer not to rush and to perhaps leave some time to sketch or visit the nearby Chateau de Fountainbleu, I would set aside a whole weekend.

On a recent visit with Barbara Redmond, fellow artist and founder of A Woman’s Paris, I began in Grez-sur-Loing (postal code 77880) at the southern edge of Fountainbleu.

Grez became a popular summer travel destination for American artists in Paris after a train station and new hotel were built In 1860. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot‘s painting View of the Loing At Grez (1850-60) may have worked like a Grez travel poster, inducing many art students to come and try to paint it themselves. Word about Grez circulated through the Academie Julian in Paris as well as Carolus-Duran’s studio.

The Bridge at Grez-sur-Loing by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1850-60). currier Art Gallery, New Hamshire.

The Bridge at Grez by American Robert Vonnoh (1907-11). Metropolitan Museum of New York.

Standing in front of the bridge at Grez-sur-Loing in 2012. Just when we were thinking of getting out our sketchbooks, it started to rain.

Athough Grez was gray and quiet the day we visited, it was once hopping with artists and writers, both male and female. Its notable visitors included Robert Louis Stevenson, his cousin, painter Robert Allen Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott’s little sister Abigail May Alcott (an artist like Amy in Little Women), American painters Kenyon Cox, John Singer Sargent, Theodore Robinson, Robert Vonnoh and Will Low, as well as a mother-daughter team of painters from California, Fanny and Nellie Osbourne. In fact, it was at Grez that Fanny Osbourne and Robert Louis Stevenson would meet and fall in love, although Fanny was ten years older and technically still married to her first husband at the time. (A hint of the bohemian pleasures of a nineteenth century art colony!)

These artists enjoyed the picturesque setting of the village as well as the open spaces nearby. The older French artists such as Corot, Millet and Rousseau had settled in nearby Barbizon a few decades earlier, but there was a new generation of artists looking for their own scenes and style. As Robert Allen Stevenson explained:

At Barbizon it was especially difficult to get away from the old men who had made it their own, and yet do anything like art. Forest interior composes with difficulty otherwise than as Rousseau, Diaz and Courbet imagined it. . . .  Shut in, full of forms, lit in one way, deprived of sky of space of air of the effect of large simple planes, it was no fitting nursery for the new school of painters (“Grez” The Magazine of Art, 1894).

It wasn’t just lofty artistic motives that brought this generation of artists to Grez. It was also a place for youthful exhuberance and bohemian camaraderie. The artists enjoyed the casual hospitality of two inns in Grez: Hotel Chevillon and Pension Laurent. Hotel Chevillon was the place of much bohemian merriment, including singing and dancing in the hotel dining room as well as a masquerade ball in sheets and togas. The hotel guests  often took canoe rides on the river together, playing such games as tip the canoe and shoot the chute. For a somewhat more reserved and respectable environment, the women would often stay at Pension Laurent just down the street.

A postcard image of the old Hotel Chevillon from the website of the Foundation Grez-sur-Loing.

Both hotels are still standing in downtown Grez. The Hotel Chevillon is now owned by Foundation Grez-sur-Loing, a Scandinanvian art organization that offers grants to visiting artists, authors, composers and scientists. According to their website, tours may be arranged with advance notice.

Hotel Chevillon in 2012, home of Foundation Grez-sur-Loing, a Scandinavian art organization. A popular hang-out for the artists who came to Grez. Robert Louis Stevenson met his future wife here.


Hotel Chevillon is located on rue Carl Larsson, which is named after the Swedish painter who lived and met his wife in Grez.

The present day site of the former Pension Laurent in Grez, just a few doors down from Hotel Chevillon. Abigail May Alcott may have  stayed here during her visit the summer of 1877.


The plaque at the former Pension Laurent in Grez

The artists came to Grez in several different waves. In the 1870s, it was mostly Americans and British; in the 1880s it was mostly Scandinavians, and by the 1890s, there were many Japanese artists. The Scandinavians have had the most lasting influence – one of the streets is named after Swedish artist Carl Larsson.
Robert Vonnoh might be the American artist most closely associated with Grez. Boston-born Vonnoh first came to Grez on his honeymoon with his first wife Grace in 1887. He continued to visit throughout the years 1887-1891 and then again from 1907-1911, returning with his second wife Bessie Potter Vonnoh, a sculptor from Chicago. He returned for some part of each year until the outbreak of World War I. His last paintings set in Grez are dated after the war from 1922-1925.
Vonnoh has often been called one of America’s first-rate Impressionists. It would have been in Grez that he truly developed his plein air style. Here are some of Vonnoh’s paintings set in Grez:

Beside the River – Grez by Robert Vonnoh (1890)

Grez-sur-Loing by Robert Vonnoh

Poppies (also known as In a Flanders Field) by Robert Vonnoh (1890)

Grez remains an artistic community today. On the day we visited, we met a French painter near the ruins of the old Tour de Ganne. She was clipping dried hydrangeas from the churchyard to use at her own art exhibition later that afternoon. She handed us a flyer and invited us to stop by.

Follow along on my tour of other French art colonies in future posts. Coming soon: a visit to Rosa Bonheur’s Atelier in Thomery, France.

Sources and Recommended Reads:

Grez Days: Robert Vonnoh in France (Essay and Catalogue by May Brawley Hill for Berry-Hill Galleries 1987)

The Life of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson by Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez (Gutenberg Project ebook, 2008)

May Alcott: A Memoir by Caroline Ticknor (1928), available at the Library of Congress Internet Archive

A Chronicle of Friendships 1873-1900 by Will H. Low (1908), available at Open Library