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Lilly Martin Spencer

Born: 1822, Exeter, England, United Kingdom
Died: 1902, New York, New York, United States of America

The Home of the Red, White and Blue
c. 1867-1868

Oil on canvas
Image: 24 x 30in. (61 x 76.2cm)
Frame: 32 3/16 x 38 1/16 x 6in. (81.8 x 96.7 x 15.2cm)
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2007.1
Signed: Lower Left corner: L. M. Spencer
Artist Name: []

Interpretation

Lilly Martin Spencer's Home of the Red, White, and Blue is an allegory of the state of the American nation in the aftermath of the Civil War, couched in a benign scene of family recreation in a generic sylvan setting. The composition focuses on the central group of three female figures—a self-portrait of Spencer herself, flanked by two of her daughters—who enjoy the comic antics of a monkey begging for his owner, an organ-grinder. Between these figures stands a plump boy precariously raising a goblet of milk, toward which the musician seems to reach as if to transfer it to his barefoot daughter, who glances shyly downward as she folds her arms, her tambourine mute against her apron. On the far right a sturdy nursemaid smiles at the delight of the crowing baby on her arm as a pitcher of milk dangles from her left hand. Seated and relegated to the periphery are three more family members: a grandmotherly woman in the center background; her male counterpart, on the left, who glances sideways toward the main action, and on the far left a shadowed man marked by his crutches and blue uniform as a wounded veteran of the Union Army. This figure is said to be modeled on the painter's husband, although Benjamin Spencer did not serve in the war.

Dominating the foreground of Spencer's composition, a battered American flag, its blue field of stars torn from the red-and-white stripes, symbolizes the nation's physical and psychic devastation in the wake of the Civil War. The nearby sewing box suggests the repair and reconciliation underway in the capable hands of the white-clad central woman, a thimble visible on her right hand as it rests on her younger daughter's shoulder. The flag's colors echo insistently in the contrasting dresses of the female trio, in the striped bunting in the lap of the grandmotherly woman, and in the tricolor shoulder ribbons worn by both the young girl in blue and the baby. America's restoration, Spencer asserts, is the work of its mothers and daughters now that American manhood, personified by the shadowed veteran marginalized at the left, is defeated or exhausted. The generously shared milk is a further emblem of the boundless natural feminine capacity for nurturing, a central element in the mid-nineteenth-century ideal of womanhood. In Spencer's image it suggests the healing of the national divide not only between North and South but between conflicting social classes and ethnic groups, linking the middle class represented by Spencer and her daughters to the working class and to immigrants. The artist's contemporaries would have recognized the swarthy features of the organ-grinder as stereotypically Italian, and the red-haired servant-woman probably was intended to represent the many Irish female domestic servants then working in American homes.

Home of the Red, White, and Blue is the last of several paintings in which Spencer used domestic settings and situations to comment on the monumental tragedy of the Civil War. As a woman artist in mid-nineteenth-century America, Spencer was effectively restricted to "womanly" themes of family and home. In her many domestic paintings, however, she consciously transcended such limitations, subtly and humorously challenging gender roles and subverting domestic politics. Home of the Red, White, and Blue suggests that in the aftermath of a war that had emasculated the nation, its future necessarily lay in the hands of its women.

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Provenance

The artist
Private collection, Florida
Mr. George Turak, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Spanierman Gallery, New York, New York, 2006 (agent)
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois, 2007

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Exhibition History

American Paintings: 1850–1965. Spanierman Gallery, New York, New York (organizer). Venue: Spanierman Gallery, New York, New York, November 16, 2006–January 13, 2007. [exh. cat.]

Angels and Tomboys: Girlhood in 19th-Century American Art. Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey (organizer). Venues: Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey, September 12, 2012–January 6, 2013; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tennessee, February 16–May 26, 2013; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, June 28–September 30, 2013. [exh. cat.]

Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North, Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois and The Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois (organizers). Venue: The Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois, September 26, 2013–March 24, 2014. [exh. cat.]

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Published References

Orange, Judd, and Company. “A Beautiful Gift. A Picture for the Home Circle. ‘Dandelion Time.’ by Mrs. Lilly M. Spencer.” Hearth and Home (January 14, 1871): 36. Text p. 36.

Orange, Judd, and Company. “A Beautiful Gift. A Picture for the Home Circle. ‘Dandelion Time.’ by Mrs. Lilly M. Spencer.” Hearth and Home (February 25, 1871): 156. Text p. 156.

Orange, Judd, and Company. “A Beautiful Gift. A Picture for the Home Circle. ‘Dandelion Time.’ by Mrs. Lilly M. Spencer.” Hearth and Home (April 8, 1871): 276. Text p. 276.

Orange, Judd, and Company. “A Beautiful Gift. A Picture for the Home Circle. ‘Dandelion Time.’ by Mrs. Lilly M. Spencer.” Hearth and Home (July 8, 1871): 535. Text p. 535.

Bolton-Smith, Robin and William Truettner. Lilly Martin Spencer, 1822–1902: The Joys of Sentiment. (exh. cat., National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C.) Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973. Text, p. 189.

American Paintings, 1850–1965. (exh. cat., Spanierman Gallery, New York, New York). New York, New York: Spanierman Gallery. Text, p. 6; ill. no. 6, p. 6 (color).

Conner, Holly Pyne. Angels and Tomboys: Girlhood in Nineteenth-century American Art. (exh. cat., Newark Museum). Newark, New Jersey: Newark Museum, 2012. Text pp. 21, 23–24, 174 (checklist); ill. fig. 1, opposite p. 11(color).

Leggio, Gail. “Angels and Tomboys: Picturing the American Girl.” American Arts Quarterly 30 (Winter 2013): 23–31. Text p. 24.

Brownlee, Peter John, Sarah Burns, Diane Dillon, Daniel Greene, and Scott Manning Stevens. Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North.(exh. cat., Terra Foundation for American Art and Newberry Library). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Text pp. 11, 102-103, 114, 116, 117-118, 121-122, 123, 125, 164 (checklist), 178n33, 178n34, 1789n43; ill. p. 100, fig. 58 (color), p. 201, fig. 59 (color detail).

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