Wednesday, November 28, 2007

November 2007 - Miniature Portrait of Mark Twain

Two miniatures by Alta Eliza Wilmot (1852-1930) have been sitting near the end of the American 20C Gallery for some time. I had not known anything about the artist, nor did she feature in the literature, so there was a very limited description.

One miniature portrait was of a lady and for the second, the vendor had remarked upon a similarity to Mark Twain, although this was not reflected in the cost, as the surface of the miniature is a little bit rubbed. For example there is a minor rub on the end of the sitter's nose.

However, this past week I have been contacted by a relative of Alta Eliza Wilmot with very helpful information about her and this has enabled me to identify the artist better and also encouraged me to research the two miniatures further. Information about Alta Wilmot can be seen at Wilmot, Alta Eliza - portrait of a lady

In summary, Alta Wilmot trained as a miniature painter after she became deaf and then she joined Aime Dupont (1842-1903), previously a photographer in Paris in 1870, but later with a studio in New York at the end of the 19C, with the Dupont studio continuing to operate at least until 1938.

Aime Dupont, a Belgian sculptor turned photographer and his wife, photographer Etta Greer, had moved to New York after having established a reputation as a portraitist of opera singers in Paris. His images were a sensation and Dupont quickly became the favorite of artists associated with the Metropolitan Opera Company.

In 1903 Aime Dupont died and his wife, Etta, took over the portrait business. The Metropolitan Opera Company did not long retain the contractual relationship with the Aime Dupont Studio after Etta assumed control, nor did it hire their son Albert.

As the first Official Photographer for the Metropolitan Opera, Aime Dupont took many photographs of opera celebrities. It seems that Alta Wilmot painted miniature portraits on ivory as required, but also hand coloured miniature photographic images on milk glass, so that Dupont clients could then select the portraits they preferred. As such Alta must have been known to the celebrity clients of Aime Dupont from around 1890 onwards.

This knowledge encouraged me to take more seriously, the possibility that the miniature was of Mark Twain, the pen name used by the famous American author, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910).

The miniature and supporting information are at Wilmot, Alta Eliza - portrait of Mark Twain but in view of the importance of the sitter, contemporary images of Mark Twain are shown here for comparative purposes.

From a comparison of this miniature with the several portraits of Mark Twain shown here dating to 1892 and during the period of 1900 to 1907, it is believed the miniature by Alta Wilmot is of Mark Twain, probably painted around 1895 to 1900. This is supported by the frame chosen, which is particularly ornate. This is usually a sign of an important miniature.

In the miniature the sitter is wearing a black university gown over his suit. This seems to be a sign the portrait relates to one of a series of successful lecture tours made by Twain in the mid 1890's, which included visits to Canada, Australia, India, and South Africa. Always an engaging speaker, Twain would regale and cajole audiences with tall tales, amusing anecdotes, and barbed comments.

It could also be an occasion when he was awarded an honorary degree. This happened on a number of occasions, including; Honorary M.A., 1888, Litt.D., 1901, both Yale University; LL.D., University of Missouri, 1902; named to American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1904; D.Litt., Oxford University, 1907. The photograph shows him at Missouri, see Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) (1835 - 1910) - Famous ...

The miniature is probably copied from a photograph, although a similar pose has not yet been found, as it seems unlikely it was painted from life.

The first portrait for comparison is a photograph of Mark Twain said to be taken in Berlin in 1892 when he was 56 years old. However, in many instances dates for historic photographs are only estimates.

The other images include a full face miniature signed "U Catani" for Ugo Catani of Florence (active 1881-1895), who worked in London and Melbourne, Australia. The miniature is said to be c1900, but it looks as if it was painted several years before that, probably during Twain's lecture touring overseas, see

This portrait appears to be the most similar and it would be helpful to determine when it was taken. In the Wilmot miniature his moustache is very similar, but he looks marginally younger than in the Catani portrait. Thus the Wilmot portrait may even date to the awarding of his MA from Yale in 1888.

Academia wear seems to have appealed to Twain, as here is also a photograph of him wearing a gown, said to be taken in 1907, which may imply he is wearing the gown for D. Litt. from Oxford in the photograph.

Also a very small image from 1907, see

And a further two both holding a cigar c1905, one seated by A M Bradley see Mark Twain and the other by Alvin Langdon Coburn, see 1082

Eulabee Dix painted this miniature portrait of Mark Twain in 1908, where he is again wearing academic gown, on this occasion his D.Litt (Oxon) robes. It is now said to be in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute. (However, apologies to NPG that I have not been able to find an Internet link to it.)

In the book "Looking for Eulabee Dix" by Jo Ann Ridley, Twain is quoted as saying he had only previously sat for one portrait, in Italy, many years earlier. It is probably the one above by Ugo Catani. That comment implies this miniature by Alta Wilmot is most likely to be painted from a photograph.

Unless, of course Twain was flirting with the young and attractive, Eulabee Dix by making her feel especially important, and inferring she was the only woman to paint his portrait, even if Alta Wilmot had painted him previously.

Alta being deaf, would not have been able to participate during a sitting, in the sort of repartee for which Mark Twain was famous, whereas from the account of Eulabee painting her portrait of Twain, she could and did engage in such repartee. Thus one can accept he may not have wished to allude to what would have been a socially more difficult sitting with Alta Wilmot, if one had taken place.

As a result of these investigations and the similarities above, I believe the miniature is most likely a previously unknown and contemporary miniature portrait of Mark Twain, painted by Alta Eliza Wilmot. Probably based on a photograph, with such a photograph possibly taken by Aime Dupont or Etta Greer Dupont.

I have no doubt that there will be some scepticism that the miniature portrait is of Mark Twain. Thus, I would welcome expert opinion on the matter. Further photographic images of Mark Twain taken between 1890 and 1900 would be especially welcome. 1082

Reply to a question
I was recently asked what to do about two early 19c American miniature in ebonised frames, where the frames were damaged. In case it is of interest, my reply was as follows.

"Few American miniatures were framed in this type of frame, so yours may have been reframed at some stage, so that the locket type cases could be reused for more modern images.

It really depends how much you want to spend. The five main options are;
1 Repair the frames, even though they may not be original
2 Seek old replacement frames of a similar type, although it is important to get the right size.
3 Buy a new replacement ebonised frame.
4 Seek an old locket type case, but very hard to find.
5 Buy a new replacement locket type frame that is appropriate to the miniature,

When you have thought about that, you could contact - I have not used them, but they are very good, although not cheap! I think they can help with 1, 3, and 5

Personally, if a damaged miniature or frame is stable, I generally keep it "as is", because I would rather use the money for purchases, but that probably does not fit your situation."

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