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 Louis P. Spinner  (1851 - 1929)

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Lived/Active: District Of Columbia      Known for: portrait-prominent leaders

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Louis P Spinner
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Louis P. Spinner was born in Pennsylvania 1851/52 and was active in the Washington DC area as early as 1880 until at least 1914.

He apparently was a teacher of art as well, as he is mentioned in the obituary of a former student, Louis H. Gebhart. A portrait by Spinner of Joseph Holt, Secretary of War in 1861, is in the the collection of the U.S. Army's Portrait Gallery.

References include Who Was Who in American Art 1999; Virgil E. McMahan, "The Artists of Washington, D.C. 1796-1996: A Directory of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers Born Before 1900," published privately 1996.

Submitted by Stephanie Strass, July 2002:
Washington's Forgotten Artist Louis P. Spinner

By Marshall (Mark) Brown 08/08/00

How could a prominent Washington, D.C. portrait artist, reputed to have painted sitting presidents, a Supreme Court Justice, the Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of the Army and leaders of various South American countries, simply vanish from written history? And, with the exception of a brief reference in "Artists of Washington DC, 1796-1996", by Virgil E. McMahan, that is just what has happened to Louis P. Spinner.

Louis Spinner was born near Warren, Pennsylvania, of German immigrants in 1852. As a child, he was said to have loved art and showed great promise at an early age. By the time he was a teenager, he was working as a sign painter and coloring tintype photographs. But, his reputation as a talented painter soon spread beyond western Pennsylvania and, at the age of 18, he was invited to come to Washington, D.C. by a Mr. Williams who had learned of his work. Once settled in, he rapidly expanded his repertoire to include crayon work and paintings, and the following year (1871) opened his own studios at 936 F Street N.W.

For the next forty years, it is said that Spinner's artistic output was prolific. His many landscapes in oils and watercolors were sold as fast as he could do them. Among his works were portraits of prominent Washington people, including Chief Justice Melville V. Fuller, 1888-1910, Senator Leland Stanford, 1885-1893 (founder of Stanford University), and Secretary of the Navy, William C. Whitney, 1885-1888. His portrait of Secretary of War Joseph Holt, January March 1861, may have been commissioned to replace one done from life by Henry Ulke in 1873 for the secretarial gallery and lost at a later date. Spinner's portrait was done about five years before Secretary Holt's death and appears to be a composite of tinted photography and painting. His work also included portraits of all of the Presidents of the United States up until Cleveland (22 separate paintings) for the U.S. Government for the 1904 St Louis Exposition. He also did portraits of McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt for the government. During the time he was doing portraits, he also colored a great many transparencies for the geographical survey which went to the Philadelphia Exposition, as well as maps for the Library of Congress. With the exception of Secretary Holt's portrait, which now hangs in the Pentagon, there is no record of the whereabouts of the rest.

Louis did take time out from his artistic pursuits to teach and raise a family. In 1886, he courted and married the 19-year-old daughter of another German immigrant family, Emma Schaub. 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 Corcoran Art Gallery in January of 1890. Charlotte Corday was a heroine of the French revolution and was guillotined for the murder of Jean Paul Marat in 1793.

But 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 Street SE to his son-in-law, John Fuchs, and turned his back on Washington.

Family verbal history says Louis traveled all through the Southern States and continued to paint a great many portraits. By invitation, from Texas he went to South America where he painted portraits of all South American presidents. At one point, he wired his son-in-law for money to travel back to the United States after losing all he had gambling. Later he returned to Washington, D.C. and, since portraits were no longer in demand, he did retouching of photographs until he could not work any longer.

Louis Spinner quietly passed away on the 20th of May 1929. His granddaughter still vividly remembers him from that period as being very charming and charismatic. He was laid to rest in Washington's Congressional Cemetery, next to his beloved Emma.

It was said that the last painting he did, "The Ascension of Christ", oil on canvas, was 8 X 12 feet and took him a year to do. The figures of the apostles were in different colored robes and could be seen in daylight, but the figure of Christ appeared only in total darkness. This painting was exhibited for public view, with a charge, for an extended period of time, first in a small store on Pennsylvania Avenue and later at St Aloysius Church on North Capitol Street. It was then purchased and taken on a tour around the country for exhibition purposes. Like Louis, its existence is unknown today.

Submitted by Marshall (Mark) Brown, January 2004

He credits: Congressional Cemetery Records, Washinton DC (although the grave is unmarked, the cemetery directory has them listed); U.S. Census Records; Historical records and DC city maps Martin Luther King Library, Wash DC; Correspondence archives - Corcoran Gallery of Art, Wash DC; Personal interviews with his descendents; and finally Boyd's Directory Of Washington, DC (1887/1888/1889/1890/1902/1905/1910/1915/1920 and 1930 editions).

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