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The Cover
June 16, 2004

Domestic Happiness

Author Affiliations

The Cover Section Editor: M. Therese Southgate, MD, Senior Contributing Editor.

JAMA. 2004;291(23):2793. doi:10.1001/jama.291.23.2793

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.

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