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Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson (1840-1914)

Below is a brief biography of Fanny’s life.

The First Forty (1840-1880) ↓  |  Life As Mrs. RLS (1880-1914) ↓

For more information about Fanny’s life or her work, click on a link below:


The First Forty: Prairies, Pioneers & Painters

Born Frances Matilda Van de Grift on 10 March 1840 in Indianapolis, Indiana, Fanny was the oldest of six children. Her parents, Jacob and Esther, were both from Philadelphia and of Swedish and Dutch ancestry. Jacob was a carpenter and later owned a lumber mill in Indiana.

Fanny was an educated young woman of 17 when she married the dashing officer Samuel Osbourne. They had a daughter, Isobel, a year later. Their lives changed when Sam went off to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Afterwards, Sam headed off to the silver mines of Nevada to find his fortune and soon sent word that his family should join him.

Fanny, and five-year-old Belle, traveled by ship from New York to Panama, crossed the isthmus, and then by ship to San Francisco, California, in 1864. The Osbourne family then spent the next several years in mining camps until Sam took a job in San Francisco and purchased a house across the bay in Oakland.

By 1875, however, Fanny was unhappy. She had given birth to two sons, Samuel Lloyd (1868) and Hervey (1871), in California but long lacked the devotion of her husband. Sam had become a philanderer and was often not at home. Against all advice, Fanny traveled to Europe with her three children in order to study art with Isobel. Arriving in Antwerp, Belgium, they learned that women were not taught in the local art schools. The family moved on to Paris, France, where they enrolled in the Académie Julian. But Fanny had little time to devote to art. Her youngest child, Hervey, became ill and died in April 1876.

Distraught, Fanny moved to the French countryside in order to emotionally recover with her surviving son and daughter. Friends recommended the quiet town of Grez-sur-Loing, near Barbizon, which was known to only a few artists at the time. One such artist was Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson. That summer, his cousin Robert Louis Stevenson was visiting. Fresh from university, Louis was looking for inspiration for his writing. What he found was true love. Conflicted by her growing love for a man not her husband, Fanny eventually returned to California with her children in 1878.

A year later, Fanny knew her husband’s ways had not changed, and, flush with illness, she sent word to Stevenson. At the end of August 1879 he arrived on her doorstep in Monterey – looking like a bag of bones. Unwell and with little money to his name Fanny still went with her heart and divorced her husband.

Life As Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson

On 19 May 1880, Fanny and Louis married in San Francisco. Fanny remained by Louis’ side for the rest of his life – much of which was spent trying to keep him healthy and always seeking a better climate for Louis’ fragile lungs.

After Louis died in 1894 on the island of Upolu, Samoa, Fanny herself suffered depression and poor health. She eventually sold their Samoan home, Vailima, and returned to California – though family and friends ever after called her by the Samoan title Tamaitai.

Building homes in San Francisco, Gilroy and Santa Barbara, Fanny spent the rest of her life devoted to promoting Stevenson’s legacy.
Fanny peacefully passed away at her home Stonehedge on 18 February 1914. Her daughter Isobel brought her cremated remains to Samoa to be buried next to Stevenson. When the islanders learned of this they threw a large celebration to honor the final reunion of the loving couple known to them as Tusitala and Aolele.

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Published Short Stories*

‘Too Many Birthdays’ (St. Nicholas, 1878)
Sargent’s Rodeo’ (Lippincot’s Magazine, Jan. 1880)
Chy Lung, The Chinese Fisherman’ (St. Nicholas, 1880)
The Warlock’s Shadow’ (Belgravia, 1886)
Miss Pringle’s Neighbors’ (Scribner’s Magazine, 1887)
The Nixie’ (Scribner’s Magazine, 1888)
The Half-White’ (Scribner’s Magazine, 1891)
Under Sentence of the Law: The Story of a Dog’ (McClure’s, 1893)
Anne’ (Scribner’s Magazine, 1899)

*Fanny’s sister, Nellie Sanchez, summarized these in her biography of Fanny as “Several fairy stories published in Our Young Folks and St. Nicholas, magazines for young people… [and a] number of short stories in Scribner’s and McClure’s magazines, among which “Anne” and “The Half-White” attracted the most attention.”

With Robert Louis Stevenson

More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter (1885)

Introductions to Stevenson’s Works

The Novels and Tales of Robert Louis Stevenson (Scribner’s 1897- 1904)

Posthumous Publications

The Cruise of the Janet Nichol (1914)
Our Samoan Adventure: Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson (edited by Charles Neider, 1956)

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“Untitled (Female Native)” oil on canvas, n.d. [RLSM 1970.006.0001]
“Untitled (Portrait of a Cat)” oil on canvas, n.d. [1970.006.0002]
“Untitled (Street Scene in Grez)” oil on canvas, 1876, signed “Fanny Osbourne” [1987.001.0001]
“Untitled (Garden Scene in Grez)” oil on canvas, n.d. [1997.006.0001]
“Untitled (Garden with Building)” oil on canvas, n.d. [1997.007.0001]
“Equator … Oct. 23, 1889” watercolor, 1889, [1998.041.0001]
“Untitled (Parrot)” watercolor, n.d. [1998.043.0001]

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