Join curator Emily Lang for a talk on Lilly Martin Spencer on Saturday, March 22 at 2 pm at the Ohio History Center and see some of the artist’s work in person.
During the mid 1800s Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902) was one of only a few nationally-known female genre painters. “Unlike most women artists, she did not hail from a family who provided in-home training in art, though her parents’ radical social views contributed to their willingness to support her unconventional career.” The path that led to her art career stretched across the Ohio Valley, from Marietta to Cincinnati.
Angélique Marie Martin, called Lilly, was born in England in 1822. Her parents were a highly educated, progressive French couple. In 1830, she arrived in the U.S. from her native England to New York before settling three years later in Marietta, Ohio. She was home schooled by her mother who instilled in her that women deserved equal opportunities. Her mother was a follower of Charles Fourier, a French philosopher whose ideas inspired the creation of Utopia, Ohio. He believed that cooperation was the success of society and that woman played an equal role in this.
Martin started experimenting with art at a young age. She drew portraits and landscapes on the walls of her family’s home in Marietta. Instead of being punished, her parents encouraged her artistic skills. Martin quickly became a fixture in the local art scene. She studied with famed Ohio painters Sala Bosworth and Charles Sullivan. Martin’s earliest work is of the Ohio River and the various economic endeavors of Southeastern Ohio residents. During this period Martin began experimenting with the domestic scenes for which she would later become famous.
Martin began to attract the attention of patrons in Marietta. She was commissioned to paint domestic scenes for housewives of prominent local businessmen. Her first exhibition was held in a church rectory in Marietta. Cincinnati editor Edward Mansfield “discovered” Spencer’s work during this show, encouraging her to move to Cincinnati. It was reported that Nicholas Longworth, noted Cincinnati arts benefactor, saw one of these shows and encourage Martin’s art but discouraged her moving to Cincinnati or exhibiting until she had more practice. Longworth even offered to pay for her to study in Europe. Martin ignored this advice and her parents moved with her to Cincinnati in 1841.
Cincinnati was a cultural and financial hub of the Midwest. Because of its location on the Ohio River and the boarder between slavery and freedom, a unique culture of abolitionism and patronizing the arts emerged. Artists from the Midwest flocked to the city, hoping for commissions from Cincinnati’s most famous art patron, Nicholas Longworth.
Martin quickly settled into life in Cincinnati, studying with James Beard and several other local artists. Martin met Benjamin Rush Spencer, an English tailor living in the city, in 1844. They soon married. Spencer stopped working and never worked for the rest of their marriage. This provided Martin the freedom to pursue her artistic career while he took care of their domestic life. Martin and Spencer had 13 children, 7 who lived to adulthood.
With Martin being the breadwinner of the family, finances were often strained. In 1848, the family moved to New York City in search of a better art market. Spencer showed at the National Academy of Design and the American Art-Union. She became popular among the prosperous, middle class homes of New York City with her scenes turning increasingly domestic. As one patron wrote of her work, “despite their comic familiar manner, she has contrived to introduce a moral into every one of her comic pieces.”  Martin used her own family as models for her domestic pieces.
While Martin was a popular artist, she simply could not get the commissions needed to support her growing family. She began to experiment with lithographs, eventually becoming one of the most popular producers in New York City. Unfortunately, due to bad contracts, she was only paid for the sale of the original oil pieces and not the lithograph copies. The family moved to Newark, New Jersey in 1858, constantly searching for cheaper places to live. During the Civil War, Martin’s pieces became darker and more serious as her world rapidly changed.
After the Civil War, there was a push in the art market to acquire European art, leaving artists like Martin struggling to maintain their livelihood. In 1879, the family moved to a farm in Highland, New York. Her artistic style drastically changed during this period, focusing on rural life and detailed landscapes. Her husband, Benjamin, died in 1890 and she was then forced to sell the family farm. Martin continued to work until the day of her death on May 22, 1902.
Martin was a true visionary and pioneer for women in the arts. With the support of her family, she made artistic decisions for herself, whether it was the content of her pieces or the physical location she placed herself in to create art.
The Ohio Historical Society is fortunate to have several Lilly Martin Spencer pieces in the permanent collection including “This Little Pig Went to Market”, “First Stew”, and “Shake Hands?”. Recently, her piece entitled, Shake Hands? , was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine. As part of the exhibition, Chef Meg Galus of NoMI explains how Lilly Martin Spencer’s piece inspires her.
How does Lilly Martin Spencer inspire you?
Emily Lang, History Curator
Ellet, E. F. Women Artists in All Ages and Countries. New York: Harper & Bros., 1859.
Katz, Wendy. “Lilly Martin Spencer and the Art of Refinement.” American Studies 5, no. 37 (2001): 5.
Spencer, Lilly Martin. An Exhibition of Paintings Presented by the Ohio Historical Society: An Exhibit of Paintings and Reproductions of Paintings. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio Historical Society, 1959.
 Katz, Wendy. “Lilly Martin Spencer and the Art of Refinement.” American Studies 5, no. 37 (2001): 5.