Why is the Lilly Martin Spencer exhibit called “The Power of Painting”?

Why is the Lilly Martin Spencer exhibit called “The Power of Painting”?
Posted June 24, 2015
Topics: The ArtsCivil War

Power of Painting: Lilly Martin Spencer is on exhibit at the Ohio History Center in Columbus June 10, 2015, through Aug. 14, 2016. Where did the exhibition get its name from and what does it have to do with the artist?

For Lilly Martin Spencer, painting was more than merely depicting scenes of everyday life.  Spencer wanted her pieces to inspire moral behavior for viewers by using symbols of goodness and comic relief, counteracting the evil she felt existed in the world, through the use of genre paintings. Spencer’s work spoke to an emerging American belief that manners could be purchased and learned. She used etiquette manuals to guide the messages she wanted to communicate through her paintings. As a result, her prints were often used in magazines to illustrate articles giving advice on proper social behaviors. Spencer felt so strongly about these messages in her artwork that she often wrote lengthy artist’s statements to accompany the pieces, preaching that, “allegory must be strictly consistent with the facts or ideas to be represented, whether it pleases or displeases the preconceived opinions of the spectator.”

Explaining this idea in a letter to her parents in 1847, “I want to try to make all my painting(s) have a tendency towards moral improvement as far as it is in the power of painting, speaking from those who are good and virtuous, to counteract evil.” Spencer managed to express moral and social messages through the use of humor and the idea of love. In This Little Pig Went to Market (catalog number H 19178), Spencer shows the bond between mother and child through a mother lovingly playing with her child’s toes. These scenes brought Spencer national attention; “dozens of Spencer’s paintings were engraved or lithographed by print publishers, and close to one million prints of her work circulated in America and Europe during the 1850s.”[1]

Spencer believed in the virtuosity of art into the final years of her life, often to the detriment of her own success. After the Civil War, the country faced a harsh economic and social recovery; many people had lost a lot and genre paintings depicting scenes of happy home life were no longer as popular. Though Spencer did experiment in landscape and portrait painting, she was unable to achieve the levels of success she experienced before the war. As art historian David Lubin explains, “Well within the sentimental currents of her time in the 1850s and 1860s, Spencer seemed increasingly old fashioned in the years thereafter.”[2] However, Spencer felt so strongly about the message of morality in her artwork, she continued to paint unpopular scenes. When submitting one of her last painting to the Academy of Design in 1898, Spencer expressed her worries about misinterpretation, “I feel nervous as to the success of my pictures, which have been alone under the most crushing accumulation of difficulties; and it follows, of course, that I am anxious that at least their subjects’ meaning should be well understood.”


[1] Masten, April. "Shake Hands? Lilly Martin Spencer and the Politics of Art." American Quarterly 56, no. 2 (2004): 349-94.
[2] Lubin, David M. "Lilly Martin Spencer's Domestic Genre Painting in Antebellum America." In Picturing a Nation: Art and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century America. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1994.

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