By Marshall "Mark" Brown
As I've mentioned in previous columns, the "chase" is something I and many others look forward to when working with antiques. That ability to find something that no one else has yet discovered. But besides the obvious routine of attending auctions, flea markets, etc, the chase can sometimes evolve when you least expect it and right under your nose.
In January 2000, I purchased an inexpensive oil painting (at auction) as a result of a divorce proceeding. At the time, the painting of "Charlotte Corday" dated 1889 by Louis Spinner didn't impress me, but the late Victorian frame did get my attention as it was covered in gold leaf and was in nearly perfect condition. I figured I could use it to frame a more appealing picture at a future date.
It wasn't until some weeks later that I did a quick search online to find out who Louise Spinner was, and what I found left me with more questions than answers. The only reference listed was a book that contained one short paragraph without even a date of birth or death. But more intriguing was a listing of several Spinner paintings catalogued by the Smithsonian's American Art Museum.
What had I bought? And, was the painting of value after all? Plus, I personally wanted to know who Louis Spinner was and why history had apparently forgotten him.
This started a chase that initially took nearly eight months to complete, beginning with a visit to confirm the book reference and ending with my wife and I standing next to the unmarked graves of Louis and Emma Spinner in Congressional Cemetery.
Besides reviewing early census records at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington D.C., our chase included a bedside interview with Elsie (Louis' elderly daughter), discussions with his grandson in Maine, and visits to the Cochran Gallery. What we discovered was not a forgotten artist, but a story that movies are made of.
Louis Spinner was born near Warren, Pa., on May 13, 1852. By the time he was a teenager, he was working as a sign painter and coloring photos. Moving to Washington, D.C., he married Emma Schaub in 1886. By 1887, their first child, Herman, was born, followed two years later by a daughter, Elsie.
In 1889, Spinner painted a Charlotte Corday of his own conception, which received an honorable mention when hung in the Corcoran Art Gallery in January of 1890. Tragedy struck in 1910 when Emma, his wife and companion of 24 years, developed nephritis, a debilitating kidney disease. One year later, at the age of 44, she died, according to her death certificate, of "exhaustion." Louis was devastated and by 1914, had closed his studio, handed over his home at 255 12th St. SE to his son-in-law, John Fuchs, and turned his back on Washington.
Family history says Louis traveled and continued to paint. By invitation, he went to South America where he painted portraits of South American presidents. Finally, he wired his son-in-law for money to travel back to the United States after losing all he had gambling. Upon return, he did retouching of photographs until he could no longer work and quietly passed away on the May 20, 1929. Louis was laid to rest in Washington's Congressional Cemetery, next to his beloved Emma.
I thought the chase was complete when I wrote Louis' biography in 2000, but two more pieces of the puzzle turned up just this past year: we obtained a copy of an entry in the family German language bible confirming Louis' (sp. Lu Phillip) date of birth. But more surprisingly, though, was the discovery of another, nearly identical 1889 Charlotte Corday painting by Louis currently hanging in the Canton Museum of Art! -- http://tiny.cc/25znzw.
It turned out that our Charlotte was the first rendering with areas that were painted over until the artist was satisfied with his concept. The second rendition, the one that hung in the Corcoran Gallery, was purchased by an Ohio industrialist and only recently donated to the museum in Canton, Ohio.
Marshall "Mark" Brown and his wife June Lingwood-Brown own Why Not Antiques located at 7994 Main St., Middletown, Va. For more information or to contact him, visit whynotantiques.com or call 540-868-1141.