Lilly Martin Spencer (England/New York 1822-1902)
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, 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 paintings 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. They 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
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 had 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 outgrew 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 until the end of her life.