A woman's place is in the studio. The art and times of Lily Martin Spencer
TO believe Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Fenimore Cooper, George Caleb Bingham, and other poets and genre painters of the 19th century, the American man spent nearly all his time trapping, fishing, tilling the soil, or battling in the political arena. Domestic activities, we might assume, were all conducted by women. But a handsome picture of the time by a woman genre painter, a first-generation American born in Exeter, England, Lilly Martin Spencer, provides intriguing evidence to the contrary.
Entitled ``The Young Husband: First Marketing,'' it is a skillfully rendered and revealing visual anecdote. As her title indicates, Spencer represents a youngish man - in his late 20s or early 30s - performing a rather ordinary task. He is making his way home with a basketful of supplies.
Spencer's take on the husband is rather wry. One of the chickens looks as if it may not arrive at all; it dangles precariously, like a circus performer hanging by his legs from a trapeze. Nor is spilling groceries the only reason the husband looks annoyed. It is raining. But our shopper is forced to carry his umbrella shut, because both hands are attending to the basket. This is the most ordinary sort of tale: a story of the hassles encountered while doing errands. But Spencer has told it so well and so concisely that we instantly know why the man passing by is smiling. We have a similar reaction, since nearly all of us have been in similar situations.
A 1973 exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art resurrected Spencer's art. Since then, there has been continuing interest in this painting. ``The Young Husband'' was seen again in the landmark survey ``Women Artists, 1550-1950,'' at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1977. It was part of the inaugural exhibition of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, ``American Women Artists, 1830-1930.''
Spencer's reputation has benefited, of course, from the drive to write neglected women artists into history that has occurred in the past two decades. Her genre pictures remind us that we need to make room on museum walls and in art history texts for artists who expand our portrait of an epoch.
``The Young Husband'' does precisely that. It offers a vantage point on the 19th-century American urban male that we simply don't get in the paintings of other genre painters of the 19th century such as William Sidney Mount or Winslow Homer.
It is, of course, the domestic perspective - one largely ignored by these other painters. And it is a perspective that emanated, quite logically, from the circumstances of Spencer's own life. Married in 1844, she gave birth to 13 children, seven of which survived into adulthood.
Her husband, Benjamin Rush Spencer, worked as a tailor until he fell ill in 1845. When he recovered, he assumed a rather unconventional role for a mid-19th-century husband: He served as an assistant to his wife, preparing canvases and frames as well as performing domestic duties.
When Spencer created ``The Young Husband,'' the artist and her family had lived in Newark, N.J., for about six years. But as historians Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin note in the catalog for ``Women Artists, 1550-1950,'' this picture was surely inspired by the family's years in Cincinnati.
As early as 1832, the British writer Mrs. Trollope observed in her ``Domestic Manners of the Americans'': ``It is the custom for the gentlemen to go to market at Cincinnati .... I have continually seen them returning, with their weighty basket on one arm and an enormous ham depending from the other.''
These same two historians claim that Spencer ``seems to have been directly inspired'' by this passage in Trollope's essay. I believe she saw what Trollope saw - and rendered it in paint rather than words. The subject of Spencer's painting arose, quite naturally, from her own experience, as did another painting, ``War Spirit at Home'' (1866).
Indeed, there is a portrait of the artist in the right-hand portion of this picture, seated and reading news of General Grant's victory at Vicksburg in 1863.
As in ``The Young Husband,'' there is a wry undercurrent to this picture. Though Spencer offers a sincere homage to Grant's victory, she also conveys the great divide between life on the war front and existence in the safe environs of Newark. Though the children mimic a military procession, it is really an innocent and amusing sort of imitation.
Perhaps Spencer painted this scene after the war had come to a close, because the lighthearted moment she depicted would have seemed inappropriate to a nation in the throes of war. More important, though, ``War Spirit at Home'' also offers a view of life during the Civil War which we rarely entertain, one not available in the unsettling photographs of Mathew Brady, the stately paintings of Homer, or the elegiac poems of Walt Whitman. Family life had to continue without the husband present; and it did, as Spencer testifies, though the war was a central preoccupation - even for children.
Spencer offers us an intimate view of 19th-century American life. Yet until the rise of feminist art history in the early 1970s, the view of Spencer and other, like-minded women painters was largely discounted.
Seeing these two paintings alone, I am persuaded that our vision of the past would be poorer without her pictures. That is argument enough for their inclusion in the history of 19th-century American art.