Women Painting Themselves: pt 9

Lilly Martin Spencer* 1822-1902

Lilly Martin Spencer was born in Europe but she spent most of her life in America, specifically Ohio, New York City, and New Jersey. Her parents were very encouraging of her artistic studies, and her husband let his career take second place to supporting hers while helping to raise their thirteen children (seven of which lived to adulthood).

Like many of the woman artists I’ve written about, Lilly Martin Spencer not only had a career during a time period which I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that most people assume women spent their time having children and being decorative, but she was the breadwinner for her family with said career. What you needed in order to be a successful female artist more than anything else were parents who were willing to provide education and if you married, a spouse willing to be supportive. Lilly Martin Spencer was fortunate to have both.

Secondly, her career looked like something an artist working today might have**.

Lilly Martin Spencer did not spend most of her time painting portraits of the wealthy, or religious scenes, or monumental landscapes for the wealthy to hang in their mansions. As far as I can tell, while she made some of her income from commissions, most of the money she made came from reproductions*** of paintings from her portfolio which allowed her to reach a far larger audience than would have previously been possible. Her subject of choice was domestic life, mothers, children, families, and her clientele were middle class people who just wanted something nice to hang above the sofa.The modern day equivalent would be a painter who worked with an interior designer to provide art to match someone’s living room****. This was art for the masses in every sense: mass produced, subject matter with mass appeal, and sensitive to changing trends. She was painting to support her family, if painting domestic scenes didn’t make money, she would’ve painted something else, and in fact DID when the genre declined in popularity later in her career. And, is particularly interesting to me because that’s the sort of art that most people will have in their homes, and so the sort of art that most people are going to see.

*AKA Angelique Marie Martin, and just about every spelling variation of Lilly you can think of.

**Caveat: there is still a market for portraits of rich people, at least, I’ve seen said portraits that were painted this century, but heck if I know how you go about making a career out of that these days.

***The entry for the year 1837 mentions a specific process that would be a good bet for how exactly this was done.

****Or the long version would be a painter who sold work to a print publisher who then sold it to a frame shop that the interior designer then purchased it from.

SOURCES AND ADDITIONAL INFO General Biography Brief discussion about one of Martin Spencer’s more interesting paintings. The politics discussed are a bit convoluted (radical-conservative vs radical-radical, whut?) but this is a nice gallery of her work. Slightly questionable discussion of the work vs family conflict. Young Husband attempts to buy groceries, everyone laughs. Essay on the painting “War Spirit at Home” If you happen to be in the Columbus, Ohio area there’s an exhibit of her work going on right now.

Previous parts in this series:
part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6,
part 7, part 8

Celia Yost

Celia Yost is a graphic artist and painter by both training and trade. She's also prone to ill-advised craft projects and yelling about politics.

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