intro: the images

Elizabeth McCourt "Baby Doe" Tabor (1854- 1935), 
controversial wife of a highly successful Colorado gold miner.
 Once the cover girl for LIFE magazine.

Welcome to the Stubborn Flame. It seems like every time I have a heart attack, I realize there was something else I meant to say before I cashed in. As usual, this blog is the culmination of everything in my life, but was especially inspired by a serendipitous recent discovery on an Internet auction. It is only fitting that the Internet was the instrument which this project sprang from, and where it will endure till Jesus comes. But I don't want to get ahead of myself.

This blog is illustrated by a unique collection of images, antique tintypes, which I discovered and purchased on a popular Internet auction. I had just finished a book or two which told of the extraordinary life of Adah Isaacs Menken, a wild, bohemian poet and entertainer. As I struggled to understand this amazing rebel in Victorian culture, I began to almost obsess about her, trying to untangle all the lies and myths and half-truths surrounding her wake. She had performed in Texas in the early years, and captivated the imaginations of millions from coast to coast before taking her show to Europe, where she became the first International super star... and then perished.

 L@L  Adah Isaacs Menken (1831- 1868),
 equestrian, singer, suffragist, poet, artist, actress

And then one evening, surfing over photographic images for sale, I found a lovely black-eyed face that looked so familiar. It was her. I could not believe it, and began to study the tintype as best I could. This discovery eventually led to the purchase of the image, and many more from the same dealer, who unfortunately never answered any of my careful inquiries. Not wanting to tip my hand, I quietly acquired what I believed to be the single most important find of antique photographic images of major personalities in Western Civilization, outside of the Louvre or the Smithsonian. Around sixty French and American tintypes of artists, actors, writers, models, art collectors and dealers from the Civil War era till around 1900.

Being an artist, having studied the human head and drawn and sculpted it, having executed many portraits, and having collected hundreds of antique photographic images, I was confident of my judgment and knew several facts. I could look (and had!) at literally hundreds of images... perhaps thousands during a month and never recognize a familiar face. It is unusual to find an authentic antique image of a famous person without the person who is selling it knowing who they are. Even more rare to find a collection where there are several famous people staring up out of anonymity. Here Adah, John L. Sullivan and Martha Maxwell presented themselves as ordinary citizens. But I was sure they were not only wonderful unpublished photographs of these extraordinary people, but if they were truly who I thought they were, there might be more.

My wife and brother will attest that my eyes have been gifted with the fun and talent of finding things. My collection is full of stories of “lost” things “coming home.” But this was something far greater in scope and importance than anything I had ever encountered. I fought it at first, studying, purchasing incrementally, scrutinizing, trying to be the harshest skeptic, yet realizing that the more I studied, the more I found. My skepticism pushed aside, I began to believe that I had found these images simply because I believed that I could. But I had scanned literally thousands of such tintypes over the past ten years, so persistence had been key.


 L@L  Martha Maxwell, huntress,
 naturalist and  taxidermist, who dazzled
 Victorians with her wildlife exhibits.

At first my understanding of the find was a bit naive, building the context of the finds around Adah Menken, assuming these might have been the lost souvenirs of her world travels. In fact she had distributed her writings and scrapbooks to various publishers and writers who were supposedly working on her publicity and her life story. When she died abruptly and quite young, anything might have happened to her belongings. But then I discovered a decided concentration of images taken after her death; French tintypes of famous models for the Impressionists, and portraits of famous American and French artists. Soon I was looking into heretofore unseen visages of Degas, Renoir, Vallotton, and American artists who traveled a great deal abroad, like Whistler, Cassatt, Hassam and Homer. At the same time, I found women suffragists and Civil War spies, most unknown to me, who began to emerge...

 L@L  James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903),
 painter, interior designer

I began to change my hypothetical scenario to explain the amazing concentration of these particular images... Perhaps it was a collection made by someone who intended to write the ultimate book about the contribution or participation of Women in Western culture. I believed the collection may have belonged to Elizabeth Robins Pennell, a suffragist and published author and the wife of a prominent American artist who lived in Europe, and there were of course tintypes of both of them. I think. I place a humble L@L before each image, to explain that for now it is only a "lookalike." Hopefully they can someday be authenticated by experts.

L@L  Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1862-1852), art critic and travel writer, 
women's suffragist, friend & biographer of Whistler.



Unfortunately damaged, this image makes an important
 connection-  No chance resemblance, the tintype in the 
center is of artist Mary Cassatt, Mark Twain's wife 
Olivia Clemens, and the Clemens's lifetime maid,
 Katy Leary. 
 
Anyway, as often happens when a researcher is forced to delve into such a network of related people, a story emerged. A big story... even bigger than Adah Menken, and she was big. I realized that here was a whole cache of images, never seen in context, which illustrated with charm and intrigue some the most fascinating and creative people who shaped the modern world. In the crowd of faces emerged a fabulous surprise, a large batch of rare, unpublished tintypes of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and his family and friends. This became the nucleus of the collection and the story I eventually pieced together. And I realized I had at least one more story to tell.

AND, I was blessed with a wonderful opportunity to actually add something... to participate in our knowledge of American history- even  French history, and especially Art history.  The chance to behold, research and digitally restore such treasures has been one of the great thrills of my life. The photo below is just one sample of the hundreds of hours I have spent bringing these photographs back from a virtual grave of lost relevance...

 L@L  A badly neglected and abused tintype of Olivia Clemens, before and after.

As you read it, you will soon agree to that which I will openly confess, I have a passion for this, perhaps an ax to grind, and if I did not, I would not dare or care to delve so deeply. But I think, I truly believe, this has all come together, just as it was supposed to, as foreordained since the beginning of time. But you be the judge. Either way you will enjoy a good yarn.

And perhaps, you will see and understand some things like you never have before. 

 NEXT: Go to sparks that fed the flame; Mazeppa

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