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Hood Museum of Art
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH 03755

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Lilly Martin Spencer, American, 1822-1902

The Jolly Washerwoman
Oil on canvas
Purchased through a gift from Florence B. Moore in memory of her husband, Lansing P. Moore, Class of 1937; P.993.25


Lilly Martin Spencer was one of the very few women artists of her era to earn her livelihood and achieve national recognition as a painter. Through the sale of her works she supported, albeit with difficulty, her husband and thirteen children (seven of whom survived to maturity). As is evident in this work, she admired the longstanding traditions of European genre painting and the tight realism of mid-nineteenth-century German art that was then very much in vogue. The Jolly Washerwoman depicts Spencer’s own servant at close range, cheerfully doing the household laundry. Giving monumental status to such a seemingly mundane and female-associated subject marked a dramatic departure from prevailing conventions in American genre painting (or scenes of everyday life). Typically such works had depicted male activities, set either outdoors or in more public spaces. Spencer’s rendering of a household labor—a painting of a woman by a woman—demonstrated a new emphasis on the importance of the domestic sphere, a cultural development that would become increasingly prominent as the century progressed. As in other kitchen scenes by Spencer, the subject engages the viewer with a direct gaze and broad, toothy smile, an expression rarely found in paintings of upper-class subjects. Despite the servant’s good cheer, her muscular, chapped arms and the slight tear in her bodice bespeak the exertion required of her duties. She is surrounded by an artful arrangement of the tools of her trade—tubs, pans, soap, washboard, and clothespins. These create an utterly convincing still life while summarizing the many steps of the daylong laundry process.

Last Updated: 4/29/09