Spencer, Lilly Martin (1822–1902)

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Spencer, Lilly Martin (1822–1902)

British-born American painter. Born Angélique Marie Martin in Exeter, England, on November 26, 1822; died in New York City on May 22, 1902; oldest of four children of Giles Marie Martin (a French teacher) and Angélique (le Petit) Martin; educated at home; attended the Academy of Design in New York City; studied painting informally with Charles Sullivan and Sala Bosworth in Marietta, Ohio, and John Insco Williams in Cincinnati, Ohio; married Benjamin Rush Spencer, in August 1844 (died 1890); children: Benjamin Martin, Angelo Paul, Charles, William Henry, Flora, Pierre, and Lilly Caroline.

Emigrated to the United States from Great Britain as a child (1830); had first show, in Marietta, Ohio (1841); studied in Cincinnati (beginning 1841) and became established as leading local genre artist; launched as nationally known genre artist by the American Art-Union; Truth Unveiling Falsehood declared a masterwork on its completion (1869).

Lilly Martin Spencer was born Angélique Marie Martin in Britain on November 26, 1822, the daughter of Giles Martin and Angélique le Petit Martin . Spencer's parents were French utopians who emigrated to the United States with their three children in 1830. Supporting progressive causes such as abolition, the temperance movement, and women's suffrage, they intended to establish a utopian cooperative community. Although they never achieved this goal, they provided a liberal and open environment for their children.

Spencer, known by her nickname "Lilly," was educated at home, reading from the family's vast and eclectic library. Recognizing her artistic talents early, her parents sent her to the Academy of Design in New York City before she was ten, while they were living in New York. When the family moved to Marietta, Ohio, Spencer was encouraged by two local artists, Charles Sullivan and Sala Bosworth , who introduced her to oils. At 17, she filled the plaster walls of the family home, Tupperford Farm, with charcoal murals that included full-sized portraits of family members, a water view as seen from a public square, and domestic scenes of a boy teasing a cat, a woman kneading bread, and a child taking its first step. Spencer became a local celebrity and her home a local tourist attraction.

By the time she was 18 Spencer had produced over 50 oil paintings, including portraits, genre scenes, and scenes inspired by literature. With the help of Charles Sullivan, she held her first exhibition in 1841 to raise money for her studies. The exhibition attracted so much attention from critics that Nicholas Longworth, a wealthy art patron from Cincinnati, offered to sponsor her training in Boston and Europe. Although no one knows why Spencer refused this offer, there is speculation that it was because he mandated that she study in Europe for seven years before exhibiting again, or because she adhered to a current movement among American artists to establish a native tradition of painting without "foreign" training.

In the fall of 1841, Spencer moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, home to an active artists' colony and a community of progressive thinkers. She studied briefly with James Beard and John Insco Williams, but soon surpassed her teachers. Her family's support was so complete that later that spring her father Giles moved to Cincinnati and taught private French lessons to help support her. By 1846, she had firmly established herself as a leading local artist of portraits and romantic and genre works.

In 1844, she married Benjamin Rush Spencer. Their marriage, like all of Spencer's life, was both happy and progressive. Early on, Benjamin realized that Lilly would be the main provider for the family, so he took on all the domestic chores commonly assigned to the wife and helped with the business side of Lilly's work, while she supported him and their large family with her painting.

Spencer exhibited wherever she could—the Cincinnati Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge, the Young Men's Mercantile Library, and art supply stores—but it was the art-union that finally gave her financial success and recognition. The Cincinnati and New York artunions did much to popularize art in the mid-1800s. For five dollars, subscribers joined the union, were given an engraving of a painting by an American artist, and entered into a lottery for an original oil painting. Although obviously commercial, the art-unions generated a large number of sales and a wide audience for American artists. The works chosen for the lottery were displayed in advance and widely publicized. In 1847, Spencer exhibited at the first show of the Western Art-Union in Cincinnati, and several of her works were engraved for distribution during the next two years. In 1849, the Western Art-Union commissioned an engraving of Spencer's painting One of Life's Happy Hours as the first premium for its members. In the 1852 exhibition at the American Art-Union in New York City, Spencer's works brought higher prices than those of George Caleb Bingham, John James Audubon, Eastman Johnson, and William S. Mount. By the time anti-lottery legislation killed the art-unions in 1852, Spencer was firmly established as an important American artist.

The exhibitions at the Western Art-Union in Cincinnati and American Art-Union in New York led to her being commissioned to do the illustrations for the book Women of the American Revolution by Elizabeth F. Ellet . These illustrations were reproduced in Godey's Lady's Book, thereby receiving nationwide distribution. At this point, Spencer turned from "fancy and historical" pieces to concentrate on anecdotal, domestic scenes, many inspired by her own children. The public clamored for genre works more than for other styles, especially the sentimental and humorous anecdotal scenes Spencer produced, and she became extremely popular. Some of her more well-known paintings are Domestic Happiness (1849), The Jolly Washerwoman (1851), Peeling Onions (1852), Shake Hands (1854), "This Little Pig Went to Market" (1857), and The Gossips (1857).

In 1848 the family moved to New York City, where Spencer showed and studied at the National Academy of Design. She received commissions to illustrate books and magazines and to paint portraits. Among her subjects were Caroline Scott Harrison , the wife of President Benjamin Harrison, the feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ella Wheeler Wilcox , and Robert G. Ingersoll, "the Great Agnostic." Spencer found Ingersoll's views sympathetic (as thousands of Americans did not), and painted him with his two grandchildren.

In 1858, Spencer moved her considerable family to Newark, New Jersey, but shortly afterwards rented a studio in New York City where she worked. It was there that she created Truth Unveiling Falsehood, finished in 1869. Acclaimed by critics as her masterpiece, it was an allegorical painting showing Truth protecting a young mother nursing her baby. Spencer turned down two offers of $20,000 for the painting, which unfortunately was lost with the passage of time.

Lilly Martin Spencer stopped exhibiting in 1876, and four years later moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, where she continued painting portraits. Her husband died in 1890, and in 1900, at age 78, she moved back to New York City, established a studio, and began to receive old friends and new commissions. She died at her easel in the spring of 1902 and was buried beside her husband in Highland, New York.


Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550–1950. L.A. County Museum of Art: Knopf, 1976.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1982.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts

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