Courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society
Lilly Martin Spencer was born in 1822 to French parents in Exeter, England. When she was 8, her family immigrated to New York and remained for three years before moving to Marietta, Ohio.
There, Spencer began what would become a long career as an artist, having her first exhibition at age 17 and painting literally to her last day in 1902. Most of her training took place during her years in Cincinnati from 1842-48.
Her popularity soared from 1848-1858. Her paintings, book illustrations and prints kept her very busy. It is estimated that more a million of her lithographs were printed during this time.
Unusual for the time, when Spencer married, her husband took control of the household and would assist Lilly in the studio as needed. Sadly, financial security always seemed to elude her. But she never gave up, and most accounts tell us the she and her family kept going with good humor.
Technically, Spencer’s work is much like that of other artists of the time – smoothly painted and accurate in details. Images of an idealized domestic and family nature were also very popular in this time. However, it is the sly wit Spencer displayed in many works that distinguishes her paintings.
Shake Hands? (1854; 30” x 25”), which now resides at the Ohio Historical Society, is a fine example of the talent Spencer brought to painting. This oil on canvas shows a cheerful woman making bread in a homey kitchen – perhaps getting ready for a large meal, an everyday occurrence in the Martin household of 13 children. The baker has her hand extended to viewers, her slight smile asking if they would care to have a handful of wet dough.
The warmth and humor Spencer imbued in her paintings distinguishes them from those of her contemporaries. Spencer is a model of hope and perseverance even in trying circumstances, from which we all can learn.
The Ohio Historical Society has a number of special events coming up for the holidays this year. It’s well worth a visit.
Nationally renowned local artist Michael McEwan teaches painting and drawing classes at his Clintonville area studio.