Lilly Martin Spencer

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Lilly Martin Spencer
Angelique Marie Martin

(1822-11-26)November 26, 1822
Exeter, United Kingdom
DiedMay 22, 1902(1902-05-22) (aged 79)
New York, New York
Known forPainting
MovementGenre Painting
SpouseBenjamin Rush Spencer

Lilly Martin Spencer (born Angelique Marie Martin; November 26, 1822 – May 22, 1902) was one of the most popular and widely reproduced American female genre painters in the mid-nineteenth century. She primarily painted domestic scenes, paintings of women and children in a warm happy atmosphere, although over the course of her career she would also come to paint works of varying style and subject matter, including the portraits of famous individuals such as suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although she did have an audience for her work, Spencer had difficulties earning a living as a professional painter and faced financial trouble for much of her adult life.


Early life[edit]

Self portrait, 1848

Lilly Martin Spencer was born in Exeter, England, to French-born parents Gilles Marie Martin and Angelique Perrine LePetit Martin. In 1830, when Lilly was eight, her family immigrated to New York where they remained for three years before ultimately moving to Marietta, Ohio. There Lilly was home-schooled by her highly educated parents and began what would be her long career as an artist. Her first artistic endeavors were “likenesses of the entire household, in lifelike, characteristic postures, so truthful as to be recognized at once by everyone who knew them."[1] These likenesses were drawn on the walls of the family home. Rather than being scolded, Lilly was encouraged in her love of art by her parents, whose reformist tendencies—her mother was a follower of the Utopian advocate Charles Fourier—included a belief in more opportunity for women. She continued to draw and her work was so impressive that "ladies and gentlemen began to call frequently at the farm, to judge for themselves of these vaunted pictures. Their admiring comments stimulated her ambition and added to her industry; but the difficulty of procuring proper materials and the want of a competent teacher retarded her progress."[2]

Yet she drew the attention of local artists and was mentored and helped, especially in coloring her charcoal drawings. One such mentor was Sala Bosworth, a portrait and landscape artist who trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The second was Charles Sullivan (1794–1867) who had also studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; his influence is very apparent in the early work of Lilly Martin. Martin's first exhibition in August 1841 was held at a church rectory, where she drew the attention of Nicholas Longworth, a benefactor of many artists. Of Lilly Martin, Longworth said “…a new genius has sprung up at Marietta or rather within five miles of it, at a farm house in the shape of a French girl of 17 or 18 years of age. She already has painted a great number of pictures. She is entirely self taught, excels in attitudes and designs."[1]

Though Spencer had originally traveled with her father to Cincinnati with the hopes of Longworth offering to sponsor an exhibition for Spencer, Longworth offered to help Lilly financially and discouraged her from further shows until she had more training. Longworth first made an offer to Spencer to send her to Boston for training, along with five hundred dollars.[3] This advice she ignored; instead, she along with her father traveled to Cincinnati for an exhibition in the autumn of 1841. Cincinnati was ”swarming with artists" and Lilly would spend the next seven years studying there.[1] This would be the most highly productive period in her career, and is marked by her move from Cincinnati to New York, and ends with her move to New Jersey.[4] Lilly turned down Longworth's offer to send her to Europe to study; instead she received help and instruction from portrait artist James Beard and other local artists. While in Cincinnati, Spencer studied under portrait painter John Insco William. However the exact extent of her training is unknown. She produced her most well-known and popular works during the decade between 1848 and 1858. Lilly was rare in the art world. Most women used art as genteel accomplishment and not as a career. Lilly, however, provides an example of a woman who pursued art as an occupation.

Married life[edit]

Domestic Happiness (1849)
The Artist and Her Family on a Fourth of July Picnic (c.1864)

During her third year in Cincinnati she married Benjamin Rush Spencer on August 24, 1844. Benjamin Spencer was an Englishman who worked in the tailoring business; however once they were married he no longer pursued an independent career, instead dedicating himself to helping his wife both in household chores as well as with her artistic work. This made Mrs. Spencer the main breadwinner for the family. Although the Spencers did not run a traditional home, from all accounts they had a "singularly happy one".[1] The Spencers had thirteen children, seven of whom grew to maturity. Although many feared that matrimony would end her career as an artist, it did not; she would become the most popular and widely reproduced female genre painter of the mid-19th century.

The Spencers experienced chronic financial difficulties. In pursuit of greater opportunity they moved to New York City in 1848. There she was already known through exhibitions at the National Academy of Design and the American Art-Union. By the time the Spencers arrived in New York "art patronage was firmly in the hands of the middle class which was eager to ‘purchase’ culture, and quick to assert their preference for scenes which they could identify."[5] Lilly Martin Spencer easily filled this gap with domestic scenes, often using her own family and pets as models. In 1849 she produced her first major successful painting, Life's Happy Hour. Scholars have noted that due to the demand of the time Spencer was "able to combine her two roles, as artist and mother with a certain degree of success."[5] Her works were all positive and devoid of tragedy, depicting endearing scenes of domesticity; academics have commented that in this period "her paintings exude an enthusiasm and happiness reminiscent of seventeenth-century Dutch art…(and are) enhanced by a disarming gaze directly toward the viewer or his inclusion in a coy flirtation, tease, or practical joke."[5]

Despite her positive reputation there was a disparity between Spencer’s apparent popularity and her financial success. Most of her sales were a result of art unions, and their downfall, as a result of low membership subscriptions, was a blow to her sales. She also sold possibly a million lithographs of her paintings, but of these she only received profit from the sales of the rights to the painting. She also illustrated books and magazines, such as Godey's Lady's Book and Women of the American Revolution. Again, due to the difficulty in making ends meet the Spencers moved to Newark, New Jersey in 1858. There they raised chickens and planted vegetables in order to stave off actual starvation. Spencer continued to make portraits and commissions whenever possible, and still supported her family through her art, but money remained a problem. During the late 1850s, in an attempt to expand the range of her options in domestic scenes she added sexuality to the women in her domestic spaces. This new sexuality could be due to an influx of European images, which showed women as sexual beings. This was demonstrated in more suggestive figures and elaborate hairstyles and dress.[6]

We Both Must Fade (Mrs. Fithian) (1869)

Throughout the 1860s the Civil War changed the outlook of many artists, including Spencer. Her paintings become more thoughtful and included more patriotic themes and titles.[citation needed] She produced famous and perceptive works of art such as War Spirit at Home in 1866 and We Both Must Fade in 1869, which depicts a young female looking in a mirror. The title offers a view of woman in society, which applied at least during the mid-19th century, commenting on concepts of the importance of beauty of women and their role in society. It was during this time that she painted what she considered her masterpiece, Truth Unveiling Falsehood. The piece is divided in half; on one side a monstrous woman with a sheep's head is about to devour a helpless babe in its grasp, and at its feet a figure with a grossly deformed hand pays homage. On the other side a beautiful woman nurses a child. The image is divided by Truth, an angelic blond figure who lifts a cloak (Falsehood) off the monster exposing the woman-as-beast, referred to as Selfishness.[4] The piece was not commissioned, and Spencer refused to sell it even when offered $20,000.[7] The work, whose meaning remains ambiguous today, is her only such piece with an allegorical message.

Later life[edit]

The family moved again in the winter of 1879–80 to rural Highland, New York. Her paintings reflect this change with increased detail in landscape and farm life scenes. During the 1880s Spencer attempted to reintroduce her work to the public but found that the market had drastically altered since the Civil War. No longer was it driven by middle class mentality; instead the wealthy were steered by art dealers pushing "serious" European work. Lilly’s art dealer said, "You have not lost your old skill but in some particulars have improved on the old time things. You are broader and simpler in execution and finer in color I think," however clients were buying "the great Foreign names."[1] Yet she continued to try and sell work only to find "her particular kind of work had outlived popular favor."[1]

Her husband of forty-six years, Benjamin, died in February 1890, leaving Lilly a widow. She sold the farm and moved again, to a farm 10 miles away, while maintaining a studio downtown. Spencer continued to work but her financial situation remained insecure, and sometimes she was forced to pay for services with art. Lilly Martin Spencer worked until the day of her death on May 22, 1902. She was buried at Highland Cemetery in Highland, New York.[8]

She had a career that spanned more than 60 years, and painted portraits of influential people of the time, such as First Lady Caroline Harrison and the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She persevered despite financial turmoil and facing challenges that all artists must address, as well specific difficulties for a female working in a male-dominated world.

Artistic style[edit]

Reading the Legend (1852)
See How the Sun Shines (1855)
Kiss Me and You'll Kiss the 'Lasses (1856)
Raspberries on a Leaf (1858)

Spencer's paintings are generally oil on canvas, ranging in sizes from as large as 72"x50" to as small as 16"x11". Her themes were drawn from close to home often depicting idealized children, Madonna-like mothers, happy housewives, and loveable, inept husbands.[4] Her work has been considered “both ideological (encouraging accommodation to norms associated with the rising middle class) and utopian (resistant to class or gender domination).[4] She was often influenced by etiquette books, which resulted in attention to details in the settings such as bowls of fruits and neatly designed flower arrangements. Etiquette also affected the activities of the picture's subjects—women were engaged in womanly activities and everyone played their heteronormative roles.[9] Painted in a palette of bright, crisp colors, her canvases are refined in execution and smoothly finished, although in later years her brushstrokes became drier and looser. Her works were usually given short, catchy titles, undescriptive, but rather exclamations on the subject of the painting.[1]

One main critique of her work is the variation in the size of the heads of her figures. Her reviewers often comment that the head is larger and disproportionate to the body size of the figures.[citation needed] Such pieces as Shake Hands? (1854), an oil on canvas with arched top, which now resides at the Ohio Historical Society, epitomizes Spencer’s unique style. The piece shows a buxom woman making dough in a homey kitchen adorned with domestic accommodations, such as a bowl of apples, and a chicken. Her skirt is tied back, presumably to keep it clean. Pausing from her activity, and smiling broadly, the doughy-handed woman reaches out to greet a visitor, seemingly the viewer. The title demonstrates Spencer's standard wit: shaking hands is the last thing someone would want to do while working with dough. It also has a deeper meaning concerning equality. Shaking hands is a symbol of male equality and was "fundamental to males citizens' sense of status."[6] Here a woman is making her claim to equality, though it is a limited equality rooted in a domestic sphere. Spencer does make the women's sphere separate. The dark spaces make the room appear closed off, separating the women's sphere from the more public male sphere. However it is not necessarily a negative message, this painting shows a Utopian kitchen. The message is that a woman in her sphere “accommodates the status quo and attempts to invest it with new meaning."[6]

Women were not merely frivolous and vain; rather they worked in domestic labor, which was not merely useful but highly enjoyable. The woman here is self-confident, smiles and even appears to flirt with viewer. She directs the kitchen and is in control of her world, however limited it might be. Spencer plays with traditional notions of women's roles in society and domesticity and infuses them with deeper meaning.

Selected works[edit]

  • The Little Navigator (1848)
  • Domestic Happiness (1848), Detroit Institute of Arts
  • The Young Teacher (1848)
  • Life's Happy Hour (1849)
  • The Jolly Washerwoman (1851), Hood Museum of Art
  • Peeling Onions (1852), Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY
  • Reading the Legend (1852), Smith College Museum of Art
  • The Young Husband: First Marketing (1854)
  • Shake Hands? (1854), Ohio Historical Society
  • Clap Hands (1855)
  • The Forsaken (1856), The Smithsonian Collection L.M Spencer exhibit (1973), location currently unknown
  • The Young Wife: First Stew (1856)
  • Kiss Me and You'll Kiss the 'Lasses (1856), Brooklyn Museum of Art
  • This Little Pig Went to the Market (1857)
  • Fi!Fo!Fum! (1858)
  • Raspberries on a Leaf (1858), Collection: Widener University Alfred O. Deshong Collection
  • Grandpa's Prodigies (1860)
  • War Spirit at Home: Celebrating the Battle at Vicksburg (1866)
  • Mother and Child by the Hearth (1867)
  • We Both Must Fade (Mrs. Fithian) (1869), Smithsonian American Art Museum
  • Old Man with Two Children (1845), Collection: purchased at auction in 1958 by the Ohio Historical Center, Columbus.
  • Peeling Onions (1848–1852) Collection: Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York; to Closson Galleries, Cincinnati; to Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica
  • Self-Portrait (ca. 1841), Collections: Mrs. Pierre A. G. Spencer; in 1947 to the Ohio Historical Center, Columbus
  • Shepherdess Mending Stockings (1844–1848), Collections: Mrs. William E. Smith, Oxford, Ohio (1953); given by Mrs. Smith in 1870 to the Ohio Historical Center
  • Young Women in a Seventeenth-Century Costume (1845), Collection: Mrs. Mary Abrams, Llewellyn Park, New Jersey
  • Child Playing with Fish Bowl (1856), Collection: Victor Sparks, New York; to Mrs. George L. Cohen, New York; given by Mrs. Cohen in 1966 to the Newark Museum
  • Choose Between (ca. 1857), Collections: John Mitchell, New York; to Victor Spark (1946); private owner; Victor Spark, New York
  • Peeling Onions (ca. 1852), Collection: Mr. and Mrs. William Postar, Boston
  • Reading the Legend (1852), Collections: Visitor Spark, New York (1843); to M. Knoedler &Co.; to Caroline R. and Adeline F. Wing; given by the Misses Wing in 1954 to the Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts


  • St. Luke's Episcopal Church (Marietta, Ohio), Rectory. 1841
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art. Life in America: A Special Loan Exhibition of Paintings, April 24-October 29, 1939.
  • Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.) American Processional: The Story of Our Country, July 8-December 17, 1950
  • Currier Art Gallery of Art (Manchester, N.H.) 19th Century American Painting from the Collection of Henry Melville Fuller, September 18-October 17, 1971
  • Walter Art Gallery (Baltimore). Old Mistresses: Women Artists of the Past, April 17- June 18, 1972
  • Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn, NY) Kiss Me and You'll Kiss the 'Lasses
  • National Academy of Design
  • Women's Pavilion of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Bolton-Smith, Robin, and William H. Truettner Lilly Martin Spencer 1822-1902 The Joys of Sentiment. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973."
  2. ^ Hadry, Henriette A. “Mrs. Lilly M. Spencer.” Sartain’s Union Magazine of Literature and Art, American Periodical Series (1800-1850) 573-574 (August 1851).
  3. ^ Freivogel, Elsie F. "Lilly Martin Spencer." Archives of American Art Journal 12, no. 4 (1972): 9-14.
  4. ^ a b c d Lubin, David M. Picturing a Nation: Art and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century America. London: Yale University Press, 1994.
  5. ^ a b c Bolton-Smith, Robin, and Douglas Hyland. "Baby Chicks: The Sentimental Brush of Lilly Martin Spencer." The Register of the Spencer Museum of Art. Lawrence: University of Kansas (Spring 1983): 80-93.
  6. ^ a b c Johns, Elizabeth. America Genre Painting: The Politics of Everyday Life. London: Yale University Press, 1991.
  7. ^ "Lilly Martin Spencer". Encyclopædia Britannica. 31 July 2014. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
  8. ^ "Lilly – AboutTown". Retrieved 2022-05-26.
  9. ^ Katz, Wendy Jean. Regionalism and Reform: Art and Class Formation in Antebellum Cincinnati. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002.


  • Fine, Elsa Honig (1978). Women & Art: A History of Women Painters and Sculptors from the Renaissance to the 20th Century. Montclair, N.J.: Allanheld & Schram/Prior. ISBN 0-8390-0187-8.
  • Chadwick, Whitney (2007). Women, Art, and Society (4th ed.). New York, N.Y.: Thames & Hudson/World of Art. ISBN 978-0-500-20393-4.
  • "Women Artist's Death." The New York Times, 1902-05-23. Retrieved on 2008-01-02.
  • Bolton-Smith, Robin, and Douglas Hyland. “Baby Chicks: The Sentimental Brush of Lilly Martin Spencer.” The Register of the Spencer Museum of Art. Lawrence: University of Kansas (Spring 1983): 80-93.
  • Bolton-Smith, Robin, and William H. Truettner Lilly Martin Spencer 1822-1902 The Joys of Sentiment. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973.
  • Freivogel, Elsie F. “Lilly Martin Spencer.” Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 12 No. 4. (1972): 9-14. JSTOR. 29 Jan. 2008.
  • Hadry, Henriette A. “Mrs. Lilly M. Spencer.” Sartain’s Union Magazine of Literature and Art, American Periodical Series (1800–1850) 573-574 (August 1851).
  • Johns, Elizabeth. America Genre Painting: The Politics of Everyday Life. London: Yale University Press, 1991.
  • Katz, Wendy Jean. Regionalism and Reform: Art and Class Formation in Antebellum Cincinnati. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002.
  • Lubin, David M. Picturing a Nation: Art and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century America. London: Yale University Press, 1994.
  • Kort, Carol; Sonneborn, Liz (2014-05-14). A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 9781438107912.
  • Masten, April F. 2004. “Shake Hands?" Lilly Martin Spencer and the Politics of Art”. American Quarterly 56 (2). Johns Hopkins University Press: 348–94.
  • Withers, Josephine. 1976. “Artistic Women and Women Artists”. Art Journal 35 (4). [Taylor & Francis, Ltd., College Art Association]: 330–36. doi:10.2307/776223.
  • Stott, Annette. 1992. “Floral Femininity: A Pictorial Definition”. American Art 6 (2). [University of Chicago Press, Smithsonian American Art Museum]: 61–77.

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