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Lilly Martin Spencer’s Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the ’Lasses

Lisa Duffy-Zeballos, PhD
Arch Facial Plast Surg. 2008;10(2):148-149. doi:.
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Lilly Martin Spencer was born Angelique Marie Martin, the daughter of French parents, in Exeter, England, in 1822. The family immigrated to the United States in 1830 and eventually settled in the small town of Marietta, Ohio. Her politically progressive parents were active supporters of women's suffrage and encouraged their daughter to pursue an artistic career. With their help, the young artist held her own exhibition of paintings in 1841 in her local church. The exhibition attracted the notice of the wealthy art patron Nicolas Longworth, who offered to finance her trip to Europe to complete her artistic education, an offer she refused. Some have speculated that her decision to remain in Ohio was informed by the prevailing patriotic distrust of the corruptive effects of foreign influences on the purity of the American artistic vision.1(p17) She remained in Cincinnati, where she married a fellow English émigré, Benjamin Rush Spencer, in 1844. A tailor by profession, he proved unable to maintain a stable career, and, in an unusual reversal for the time, Spencer became the sole provider for the family while her husband remained at home to care for their 7 children. Although the young Spencer favored Shakespearean subjects, then so much in vogue with her English contemporaries, as a working artist and financial head of the household, the mature Spencer began painting domestic genre scenes popular with a new breed of middle-class American patrons. In the antebellum years, American collectors sought images that confirmed the American independent spirit and an appreciation for homespun common sense. Resident artists like William Sidney Mount, Richard Caton Woodville, and George Caleb Bingham achieved great financial success producing rustic scenes of American life. Their paintings, like Mount's California News(The Museums of Stony Brook, Stony Brook, New York) and Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri(The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York), typically focus upon the interactions of male figures, whereas Spencer's genre scenes often depict women within the domestic sphere. Several of these experiments with the genre, including the saccharine Domestic Happiness(The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan) and This Little Pig Went to Market(New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut), ooze with oversentimentalized parental bliss to appeal to the conservative middle-class collector. At other times, her quaint domestic scenes convey a caustic satirical wit and underlying sense of poignancy. In Choose Between(private collection), a mother sits in a parlor with her son and daughter who are choosing from a litter of kittens in her lap. However, the girl's pensive attitude and the restless anxiety of the mother cat remind the viewer that the children's choice of a pet condemns the rest.2(p198)

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Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902). Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the ’Lasses, 1856. Oil on canvas, 291516×241516 in. A. Augustus Healy Fund, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

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