The Cover Section Editor: M. Therese Southgate,
MD, Senior Contributing Editor.
In mid-19th century America, it was as unlikely for a woman to become
a professional painter as it was for her to receive an MD degree. Yet what
Elizabeth Blackwell would do for medicine, Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902)
did for art. She overcame the artistic barriers to be acknowledged during
her lifetime as the most famous female painter of her generation. For Spencer,
painting was a moral choice: "A fine painting has a beautiful power over the
human passions," she wrote to her parents in 1847. She also had high ambitions:
"I mean to try to become a Michael Angelo, if I possibly can," she confided.
(James ET, ed. Notable American Women 1607-1950.
Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press; 1971). But Lilly Martin Spencer
was more than America's most famous woman painter: she was also its most beloved
and her works were among those most widely reproduced. She concentrated mainly
on genre and anecdotal painting, taking her subjects from her own daily life.
Domestic scenes starred her husband, their children, their pets, and the family
cook. Her work was unabashedly sentimental (though not mawkish) and spiced
with humor; many of the domestic scenes recount private moments that wives
and mothers cherish along a secret network of shared experiences. She brought
color to otherwise drab lives and winked an eye at the sometimes holy, sometimes
comic, often unnoticed daily events of ordinary households. In a country that
was intent on expanding and a citizenry on acquiring, she reminded its people
that the mundane—marketing, baking, or simply watching children in their
sleep—often brought the greatest pleasure of all. She brought her public
not the vast landscapes of the American West nor the misty landscapes of the
Hudson River Valley, but the mostly hidden landscapes of the heart.
Southgate MT. Domestic Happiness. JAMA. 2004;291(23):2793. doi:10.1001/jama.291.23.2793