|Lilly Martin Spencer: Self-portrait, 1841|
With Lilly Martin Spencer's paintings, we encounter a bigger change in the family painting: the family engaged in activity. Spencer unites the traditional genre painting (paintings of daily life) with the family painting. She is not alone in doing this but her paintings also reflect some of the contradictions of social life in the mid-19th century, especially as they might have been experienced by a professional woman.
The decade beginning in 1848 in
the United States was a period which starts with the woman's rights convention
in Seneca Falls, New York, and ends with financial ruin in the northeast--they
both posed challenges to traditional male authority--rights for women,
and economic failure beyond their control. Spencer, a woman whose
life seemed to embody many of the contradictions of the period in women's
roles, supported her family through her painting. The mother of 13
children (7 of whom lived), she was the daughter of parents who believed
in rights for women and who encouraged her to pursue an education.
Her husband took most of the responsibility for care of the house, freeing
Spencer to paint, but it is not clear that he had the means to support
the family otherwise.
|Lily Martin Spencer: This Little Pig went to Market, 1857||Spencer: Domestic Happiness, 1849|
Spencer's art tends to embrace a
somewhat ambiguous position--she neither affirms the middle class patriarchal
values nor rejects them. But her position regarding family values
is radical in a conservative way. That is, she is supporting the
traditional, conservative role of the woman in the family, at a time when
it was coming under attack by feminists and socialists. What is not
immediately apparent to us is that in her painting, Domestic Happiness,
in which the children are really the dominating force and the parents subordinate
themselves to the happiness of the children, she is taking a position which
is in opposition to a new, more conservative stance of saying that the
children should be led, taught, governed; they should not "govern."
The painting is a harmonious scene during a time of disharmony in the nation,
and this fact could also argue for seeing Spencer's painting as radical--radical
in that it is actually giving a message in favor of the harmony of the
family and the family as a strategy against disunity in society, but the
message is given in images, not words.
|Spencer: War Spirit at Home, 1866||Spencer: Kiss Me and You'll Kiss the 'Lasses, 1856|
Perhaps the War Spirit at Home is
less ambiguous and more psychologically honest as the woman (probably Spencer),
reads the newspaper (a sign of her connection to the outside world) and
the servant woman in the background looks on with an unclear expressions--is
it disapproval or dismay? is it sympathetic response to the mother's
desire to be up-to-date with current events? Meanwhile the children
play merrily without awareness of the fact that war means more than victory
and celebration. Despite the circular composition created by all
the figures, the dark painting suggests disunity in the gap between the
two adults and the fact that no two people in the painting are actually
touching anyone else. We also know that we can find another message
in this painting about war and death. The cross created by the fold
in the newspaper and the position of the child on the mother's lap with
its resemblance to the iconic pose of a Pieta (Mary holding Christ after
the deposition) make this corner of the painting the most important part.
The children marching out of the dark background might symbolically be
the hope of the future emerging from the symbolic martyrdom expressed in
the newspaper and the "pieta" scene on the right.
|Spencer: Still-Life with Watermelon, Pears and Grapes (no date)||Spencer: Young Husband--First Marketing, 1854|
In addition to domestic genre scenes
and lovely still-lifes, Spencer painted idyllic fantasy-type scenes and
paintings which seem to poke fun at the family.
|Spencer: The Artist and Her Family at a Fourth of July Picnic, c. 1864|
It is hard to know which is more
true--the mocking side, the sentimental, or the subversive political commentary.
But perhaps she is commenting on her life, about which we know very little.
Her father was an advocate for women's rights and encouraged her to study
for a professional career. She had an opportunity to study abroad
but chose not to. She had early successes in her career but the family
was in debt, and she could not count on commissions from sales of her paintings
which became less and less frequent as did commissions for portraits.
She did not have a circle of professional contacts (people who could help
promote her career). In addition to that type of professional isolation,
she was increasingly forced to confine her work to her home environment,
to her family. So the paintings of an almost idyllic family life
may in fact be laced with some bitter commentary about the artist as housewife
Ultimately, her decision to create these ambiguous scenes and stories may be the real key to understanding her. As we noted in class, her paintings, more often than not, address the viewer in a manner which defies the classical notion of a painting. The figures either look out and wink knowingly at the viewer, or appear to be stepping off the canvas (as in the young husband doing the marketing) or create the possibility of two contradictory readings of the painting.
|Eastman Johnson: The Brown Family, 1869||Currier and Ives: Old Age--The Season of Rest, 1868 (lithograph)|
The family portrait probably experienced its peak of popularity in the late 18th century and early 19th centuries, when it began to be replaced by genre paintings (as in the work of Spencer). Yet it didnít completely die out and made something of a resurgence after the Civil War. Several reasons help to account for this revival: the belief that childhood contained a type of purity and goodness which stood in direct contrast to a war in which brothers were killing brothers, and that a picture of the older generation (the grandparents), the parents and the children together would suggest continuity and optimism for the future along with the preservation of deeply held values about the goodness of people.
In Johnson's painting of the Brown
family, the figures create a dark triangular shape in the center of the
red, green and gold room, and the triangle is reinforced by the connections
between the skirt of Mrs. Brown, the leg of Mr. Brown, and the hand and
arm of the child and his grandfather. The furniture itself seems
to reinforce this connection by creating a core volume in which the family
members sit or stand. Still, we might say that this painting could
also be a movie setting, an effect created by the clear, deep focus of
the entire scene. The trope of a grandmother who knits, a grandfather
who reads the newspaper, and a child who looks on eagerly while perhaps
engaged in something else was a theme which appeared in other paintings
and prints at this time. The Currier and Ives print is just one example
but the fact is that when we begin to look at the types of engravings found
in magazines such as Godeyís Ladyís Book, we will find this deliberate
didactic use of drawings to convey messages about the family home and the
roles of everyone within that family.
|Seymour Joseph Guy: The Contest for the Bouquet (The Family of Robert Gordon in their New York Dining Room), 1866|
This painting has more in common
with Lilly Spencerís paintings of family life with one difference probably
being the wealth of the family. Set in the dining room, and displaying
the Gordon familyís extensive art collection, our attention is caught by
the children and the older boy holding the bouquet out of reach of his
sister and brother. The mother just watches, seemingly confirming
that the oldest son is the implicit heir to the wealth of the father.
On a metaphysical level, we might go on to note that the father does not
need to be present in this painting because the trophies of his success
are all there, and that the sense of play-battle among the children may
be a metaphor of the battle of the sexes. And this mother, just as
the mother does in Lilly Spencerís painting, is an observer, a spectator
at the play-battle which her children engage in.