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Lilly Martin Spencer

Modern Woman Artist in a Changing Old West

By Mike Pizzolato

She was torn between her responsibilities as a mother and the demands of her burgeoning art career in a world that assumed women could not be major painters.

She was the main breadwinner of her family.

She criticized the war and its' harmful effects on families.

Her husband, a stay-at-home dad who managed the bookkeeping aspects of her painting career, was unable to secure steady work as the economy of the day faltered.

No, Lilly Martin Spencer did not live in our time, but she dealt with many of the problems today's women face. Women could not vote and few owned property or worked anywhere but in the home, but the seeds of change were being planted.

The first national meeting for women's rights was held in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York, where the Declaration of Sentiments was created, modeled on the Declaration of Independence and declaring that all men and women are created equal. Thus in Spencer's time began the spark of the women's movement that eventually lit the fire of equality in today's modern world.

She painted art in the middle of the 19th century during a time of economic uncertainty when women began demanding economic and political benefits. The Panic of 1857 had devastated the economy and was changing family structure, in particular the role of the father and mother in families.

It was in this setting that Spencer, an avowed socialist from a family of French Utopian Socialists, helped redefine family and motherhood with quiet portrayals of domesticity and family life.

Early in her career, she found corporate support for her work from the Art-Union and the Cosmopolitan Art Association, which printed and widely circulated her work.


Her painting, Kiss Me and You'll Kiss the 'Lasses (1856), shows a young woman in the home, looking at the viewer and undoubtedly talking to a man. The woman is young, smiling and aware of own beauty as she uses a play on the word "lasses" for the taste of "molasses" on the spoon she savors. The fresh fruit that abounds on the tables is a metaphor for fertility and nature. While the setting is safely domestic, the sexuality of a woman having just tasted from the pot of molasses and asking for a kiss is overt for the time when political arguments centered on whether the virtue and morality of women was derived from the home setting or from materialistic pursuits outside the home.

Today, similar arguments abound about women's responsibilities at work and in the home. Women workers in textile factories of the Old West period, for example, did not receive the same level of approval by society as did women who worked in the home, but that was changing with the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848. Many of Spencer's paintings, including this one, showed women engaged in the difficulties of domestic work while trying to live up to a domestic ideal. Spencer herself was torn between her career as a painter and taking care of a large household. Female viewers of this painting would've understood that the artist was portraying the toil of home life while offering lightly concealed satire of the sexual attitudes of the time.

Her work, Fi Fo!Fum! (1858) again features a role of family that, under the surface, differs from the societal view of the time. Outwardly, it portrays the father relating the story of Jack and the Beanstalk to his children. But Spencer's Socialist upbringing advocated a less patriarchal view of the family. Instead of a male with unquestioned authority who showed little affection, the father, in her view, was a companion to the working mother, dispensing both discipline and affection. In this painting, the father-in the forefront holding both children-is affectionate and emotional as he excitedly tells his kids the story of Jack, who traded the family cow for some wealth-creating, magic beans, a tale that could be a metaphor for the economic anxiety from the Panic of 1857.


Her later work, War Spirit at Home (1866), painted after the Civil War, portrays a mother surrounded by her children and weighted by her domestic duties while reading about Grant's victory at Vicksburg. However, the woman is by no means celebrating the event. Spencer, who gave birth to 13 children with 7 surviving to adulthood, is indicting the war and the pressures it put on families and women back home. Note the cross in the folds of the paper, a symbol of Christian suffering.

The family structure of the time, like today, was changing. The role of family was being questioned as a new kind of journalism surfaced in magazines and newspapers, chronicling not just events of the day, but also delving into the lives and interests of everyday people, much in the way modern media does today.

If the arguments and political discourse of America's past about family, feminism, socialism and economic uncertainty ring true to life in today's world view, it's because they are. History often teaches us more about ourselves than about those who came before us. More importantly, such debates will likely be with us for a long time.

And just as today, the art of the those times often sparked discussion far more vividly and succinctly than any historical article or document.

In other words, a picture-as the old proverb goes-is worth a thousand words.


Works Cited:

  1. Framing America: A Social History of Art, by Frances K. Pohl. © 2002, Thames and Hudson, Inc.
  2. American Art
  3. Romantic History
  4. Lilly Martin Spencer
  5. Art & Architecture of New Jersey
  6. Thinkfinity
Mike Pizzolato is the Associate Editor and Art Director of The Western Online. Visit his art blog.


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