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 Lilly Martin Spencer  (1822 - 1902)

/ SPEN-ser/
About: Lilly Martin Spencer
 

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Lived/Active: Ohio/New York      Known for: portrait, genre, children with pets and still life painting

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Lilly Martin is primarily known as Lilly Martin Spencer

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Lilly Martin Spencer
from Auction House Records.
The Young Wife: First Stew
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Lilly Martin Spencer was one of the foremost genre* painters of the late 19th century during a time called the Golden Age for the apparent material excesses of the upper classes.  In addition to her successful career, she bore thirteen children and supported the seven who survived plus her husband with the income from her work.

Her paintings of everyday life, considered sentimental subjects by some viewers, were widely reproduced in engravings and lithographs.  She became one of the most popular artists of that time and equaled in price and public appreciation the genre painting of George Caleb Bingham.

She was from Marietta, Ohio, and was encouraged in her education by liberal-minded parents, who had emigrated to the United States in 1830 with the goal of forming a utopian community.  Their were exceedingly active in promoting abolition, women's rights, and temperance.  Lilly's father was so supportive of her desire to get art training that he left home for a period of time to be with her in Cincinnati while she studied.

During her childhood, she was educated at home from an extensive classical library, and she showed early art talent.  At age seventeen, she painted charcoal murals including life-size portraits of family members throughout the home as well as scenes from their family life.  This unusual home decoration brought many viewers from surrounding areas.

In 1841, Spencer had her first exhibit, held in a local church, and the admission fee of twenty-five cents went towards her education.  The exhibition brought so much positive reaction that Nicholas Longworth, local philanthropist, offered to finance her education in Boston and Europe, but for unknown reasons, she refused the offer.

She studied with local teachers, but outgrow their instruction and expressed confidence that she would surpass the limitations of Cincinnati portrait painters. Much of her early success came from the sale of engravings of her paintings for five dollars by the Western Art Union of Cincinnati in a lottery whose winner got an original oil painting by her.  Eventually this promotion was declared illegal.

In 1844, she married Benjamin Rush Spencer, and they had a forty-six year marriage in which he carried the burden of the domestic chores, recognizing the demands of his wife's talents.  In 1848, they moved to New York City, and she felt inferior among the numerous academically trained artists. She continued to paint all day and took classes at the National Academy of Design*.  Many of her domestic scenes had her family as models.

In 1854, the Cosmopolitan Art Association began the promotion of her work through lithographs* and engravings*, and this endeavor made her famous but she got little money. For years, she and her husband struggled to support their family and never achieved financial security.  She lived to the age of eighty, continuing to paint to the end of her life.

Source:
Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see AskART.com Glossary http://www.askart.com/AskART/lists/Art_Definition.aspx



This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Angelique Marie Martin later known as Lilly Martin Spencer, painter, was born in England in 1822 as the daughter of Giles and Angelique Martin.  They emigrated to the United States from France in 1830 with their eight-year old daughter, Angelique Marie, called Lilly, and their two sons.  It was their intent to form a utopian community upon settlement in the United States, a vision that never materialized.  During her childhood, she was educated at home from an extensive classical library, and she showed early art talent.  At age seventeen, she painted charcoal murals including life-size portraits of family members throughout the home as well as scenes from their family life.  This unusual home decoration brought many viewers from surrounding areas.

After a short stay in New York, the family moved to Marietta, Ohio, where they were known to peruse the various "progressive" causes of the time including suffrage, abolition, temperance and the like.  It was at this time that Lilly's "precocious" talent for art emerged, and her liberal parents supported her pursuits as an artist despite the gender barrier that existed at the time. 

In 1841, Spencer had her first exhibit, held in a local church, and the admission fee of twenty-five cents went towards her education.  The exhibition, a success, prompted Lilly and her father to move to Cincinnati in 1841 in search of patronage and further art training.  It wasn't long before the father and daughter duo met Nicholas Longworth, a noted collector and patron of the arts.  Longworth made his art collection available to Lilly for study and soon thereafter introduced her to portrait painter James Beard and panorama and portrait painter John Insco Williams, from whom she received formal instruction in painting.

After Lilly settled in to the art community in Cincinnati she ended up staying there for seven years, eventually marrying Benjamin Rush Spencer in 1844.  Unlike many later artists, Lilly changed her name from Martin to Spencer, as was the fashion of the day.  Much of her early success came from the sale of engravings of her paintings for five dollars by the Western Art Union of Cincinnati in a lottery whose winner got an original oil painting by her.  Eventually this promotion was declared illegal.

In 1948 the Spencer family moved to New York City to further Lilly's career.  They made the unusual decision at the time to reverse rolls as family provider with Lilly earning the family income and her husband Benjamin supporting her by taking over the household duties and also acting in the capacity as art assistant, stretching canvases, preparing exhibitions and dealing with the matter of sales and promotion.  No doubt Lilly's "progressive upbringing played a part in the decision to roll reversal as family provider, something almost unheard of at the time.

The years in New York City were both fraught with triumph and disappointment for Lilly's genre paintings were popular in the important art establishments at the time, but her more ambitious "unladylike" allegorical and literary paintings were ignored, "as if her sex required her adherence to a particular subject matter."  She was said to have felt inferior among the numerous academically trained artists working in New York City at the time.  To compensate she continued to paint all day and took classes at the National Academy of Design in the evenings.  Spencer's art was both celebrated and ridiculed since her early days as an artist in the 1840s. "As fashions in art changed, her genre paintings were attacked as, variously, heavily sentimental, stiffly Victorian, and weak in their feminist stance." Despite this Spencer became known as one of the foremost genre painters of the late 19th century in antebellum America.

Her paintings depicting every day life were widely reproduced in engravings and lithographs. She became one of the most popular artists of that time and equaled in price and public appreciation the genre painting of George Caleb Bingham.  She was also known for fashion, fruit, still lifes, children and animals.

Her paintings did not sell well during the post-Civil War art market and feeling the strain of supporting seven children (she gave birth to a total of thirteen, seven of whom lived beyond infancy) and suffering the decline in the art market, the family resettled to a simpler life in Newark, New Jersey.  There a wealthy banker by the name of Marcus L. Ward, who was also a patron of the arts, helped support her with portrait commissions.  Additionally, in order to help make ends meet, Spencer hand colored photographs for local studios.  In 1854, the Cosmopolitan Art Association bought her paintings for use in lithographic and engraving reproductions, for which she rarely received royalties.  She did however, manage to support her family with her art career for her entire life and never gave up being a painter in what was a male dominated market.  At the time Women were not supposed to support a household as an artist.  She lived to the age of eighty and died in 1902.

Source:
Blake Benton Fine Art

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
One of the leading American woman artists in the 1850s and 1860s, Lilly Martin Spencer immigrated to America in 1830 with her liberal-minded French parents, who hoped to establish a utopian community, a vision that never materialized.

Educated at home in Marietta, Ohio, Lilly began painting in her teens, and had her first exhibition, held in a church in 1861. Its success prompted her family to send her to Cincinnati for formal study. There, she met Nicholas Longworth, who made his renowned art collection available to her, and worked briefly with the portraitists James Beard and John Insco Williams. In 1844 she married the tailor Benjamin Rush Spencer, and the following year gave birth to the first of their thirteen children, seven of whom survived infancy. The couple moved to New York City in 1848 to further Lilly’s career, and Benjamin left the sewing trade to become his wife’s business manager and assistant.

Once settled, Spencer painted by day and attended classes at the National Academy of Design at night. During that time, she began her steady output of domestic scenes, using family members and servants as models. Her style and choice of subject was probably influenced by the German genre paintings on view at the popular Düsseldorf Gallery in New York, which she often visited. Spencer’s images, based on humorous incidents in her own home life, found an eager and appreciative audience, and her work soon equaled in price and popularity the genre paintings of George Caleb Bingham.

In 1858 Spencer moved her family to Newark, New Jersey, to a house rented from her patron Marcus L. Ward, and turned her attention to portraiture. Her interest in realistic detail and her vibrant sense of color are evident in "The Pierson Children", painted around 1858-1860. The elaborate brushwork, colorful dress, and sumptuous setting suggest that it was an important commission. According to family history, it represents the children of A. Romeyn Pierson, who is said to have served as America’s first Ambassador to Argentina in 1825, though his name does not appear in State Department records. A descendent of an old and prominent Newark family, he may have been a friend of Marcus Ward, who commissioned likenesses of his wife and children during the same period.

After many years of sketching her own youngsters, the artist had an appealing talent for recording the expressions and gestures of youth, and her child portraits were widely admired. The Pierson portrait is similar in style to "The Children of Marcus L. Ward" (1858-1860; Newark Museum), regarded as Spencer’s most successful attempt at portraiture, and "Nicholas Longworth Ward" (1858-1860; Newark Museum), the posthumous portrait of one of his eight children. NRS



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Lilly Martin is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
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