Representing the Family, pt. 2: Lilly Martin Spencer

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 and mother.
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.

The Revival of the Family Portrait

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.