Signed and illegibly dated, lower right: Lilly M. Spencer [...]
Lilly Martin Spencer was one of the very few women artists of her era to earn her livelihood and to 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).
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, either set outdoors or in more public spaces. Spencer’s rendering of 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.
Lilly Martin’s Spencer’s Jolly Washerwoman tells us much about the period in which it was made, particularly regarding immigration and servitude in the 19th century. We know that the painting depicts the artist’s own servant—probably Jane Thompson, a Scottish-born woman who was listed as the household’s domestic servant in the 1850 census. She was likely to have been among the thousands of immigrants who fled Scotland and Ireland beginning in the late 1840s owing to a widespread food crisis caused by a potato blight. Irish and Scottish immigrants made up a large portion of the service classes in New York City, where Spencer worked at this time. Born into a liberal household associated with the utopian Fourierist movement, Spencer initially viewed her housekeepers with respect and affection. As time passed, however, she complained about her series of maids—as did many house-mistresses of the period. Such conflicts were not surprising, given that most immigrant servants were from poor, rural communities and lacked training or experience with the niceties, routines, and expectations associated with middle- and upper-middle-class households.
Less clear is what the painting might suggest about the relationship between mistress and laundress, artist and subject. Why did Spencer choose to paint her servant directly engaging the audience with a broad grin, as if sharing a joke? Was she commemorating the ideals of the happy, compliant servant and of feminine domesticity, or did she subtly undermine such standards with the work’s humorous tone, which some critics found unseemly for a female artist? We cannot know for certain, but as in all relationships between employer and employee then and now, Spencer ultimately held the power, both within the household and at her easel.
From the 2019 exhibition American Art, Colonial to Modern, curated by Barbara J. MacAdam, Jonathan L. Cohen Curator of American Art
This painting likely portrays the artist’s servant, Jane Thompson. A Scottish immigrant, Thompson escaped starvation during the Potato Famine (1845-1852) and crossed the Atlantic along with thousands of Scottish and Irish immigrants, many of whom found work in the service industry supporting middle- and upper-class white families. Conditions beyond Thompson’s control drove her from her homeland, an experience shared by most immigrants to the United States, both past and present.
Abraded by harsh soaps, Thompson’s red hands expose the reality of her labor. A pail of wrung-out clothes shows her progress, but laundry piled on the bucket behind her reveals Thompson’s work is far from finished. Her labor permitted Lilly Martin Spencer to dedicate more time to her artistic career, which financially supported her husband and seven children.
From the 2023 exhibition Liquidity: Art, Commodities, and Water, curated by Michael Hartman, Jonathan Little Cohen Associate Curator of American Art
HIST 27, WGST 23, Gender and Power in American History from the Colonial Period to the Civil War, Leslie Butler, Spring 2012
GEOG 17, Geopolitics and Third World Development, Patricia Lopez, Spring 2015
GEOG 17, Geopolitics and Third World Development, Patricia Lopez, Spring 2015
WGSS 30.05/LACS 36, Maid in America, Francine A'Ness, Spring 2021
American Art at Dartmouth: Highlights from the Hood Museum of Art, William B. Jaffe and Evelyn A. Jaffe Hall Galleries, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, June 9-December 9, 2007.
American Art, Colonial to Modern, Israel Sack Gallery and Rush Family Gallery, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, January 26, 2019-September 12, 2021.
American Viewpoints: Painting and Sculpture from the Hood Museum of Art, Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, California, May 5-August 31, 2003.
Israel Sack Gallery, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, March 2, 2009-present.
Israel Sack Gallery, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, November 16, 1993-June 22, 1997.
Israel Sack Gallery, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, September 16, 1997-April 21, 2003.
Israel Sack Gallery, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, September 19, 2003-May 8, 2007.
Liquidity: Art, Commodities, and Water, Israel Sack Gallery and the Rush Family Gallery, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, July 29, 2023-June 16, 2024.
The Sweat of their Face: Portraying American Workers, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 3, 2017-September 3, 2018.
Virtual Space for Dialogue, 2018, The Labor of Art: from Sol LeWitt to the Guerrilla Girls, Kimberly Yu, Class of 2018, Homma Family Intern, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire. https://www.kyu.vsfd.hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu/
Elizabeth L. O'Leary, At Beck and Call: The Representation of Domestic Servants in Nineteenth-Century American Painting, Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996, Plate number 3
Barbara J. MacAdam, Robert L. McGrath, Katherine Hart, Marlene Elizabeth Heck, "A Mini-Seminar On Two Hood Pieces", Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, Volume 88, Number 8, May 1996, South Burlington: The Lane Press Inc., pp. 48-51, ill. 49
Barbara J. MacAdam, Hood Museum of Art: Recent Acquisitions, American Art Review, Volume VI, Number 6, December 1994-January 1995, Kansas City: American Arts Media, Inc. p. 97, ill. p. 96
Warner Cadbury, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, University of Delaware Press, 1986, p. 82.
Robin Bolton-Smith and William H. Truettner, Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902): The Joys of Sentiment, National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1973, pp. 35, 147-148.
Derrick R. Cartwright, " American Tales" in The Extraordinary and the Everyday: American Perspectives, 1820-1920, Giverny, France: Musee d'Art Americain Giverny, 2001, pp. 17-18, ill. p.18.
American Viewpoints (brochure for exhibition), San Diego, California: Timken Museum of Art, May 9-August 31, 2003, 8 pp., checklist no. 15.
Alice Gomstyn, "What's Under the Hood? A peek at some of the rarest and most offbeat items housed in the College's Hood Museum of Art," Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, vol. 96 no. 4, Hanover, New Hampshire: Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, March-April 2004, pp. 30-31, ill. pp. 31.
Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil, Through Women's Eyes: An American History with Documents, Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005, pp. 143, ill. p. 143.
Jochen Wierich, War Spirit at Home: Lily Martin Spencer, Domestic Painting, and Artistic Hierarchy, Winterthur Portfolio, 37:1, Winterthur, Delaware: The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc., 2002, ill. p. 37.
Barbara J. MacAdam, American Art at Dartmouth: Highlights from the Hood Muesum of Art, Hanover: Trustees of Dartmouth College, 2007, p. 42-3, no. 23.
Barbara J. MacAdam, Building on Dartmouth's Historic American Collections: Hood Museum of Art Acquisitions since 1985, The Magazine Antiques, November 2007, New York: Brant Publications, color ill. p. 149.
Weirich, Jochen, "War Spirit at Home: Lilly Martin Spencer, Domestic Painting, and Artistic Hierarchy." Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Spring 2002), pp. 23-42. Discussed and illustrated on p. 37.
Mary L. Knapp, An Old Merchant's House, Life at Home in New York City 1935-1865, New York: Girandole Books and the Merchant's House Museum, 2012, p. 174, no. 83.
John R. Stomberg, The Hood Now: Art and Inquiry at Dartmouth, Hanover, New Hampshire: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 2019, p. 117, ill. plate no. 48.
The artist; sold to American Art-Union, New York, New York, 1851; purchased by John Osborn, Brooklyn, New York, at an American Art-Union auction, December 15-17, 1852; sold to Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905), agent for Louis Prang, 1868; private collections, date unknown-1993; Berry-Hill Galleries, New York, New York (attributed to Meyer von Bremen); to Herbert Roman, New York, New York (art dealer); to Charles Lalli, Mattapoisett, Massachusetts (art dealer, who recognized it as a work by Spencer); to Brown-Corbin Fine Arts, Lincoln, Massachusetts; sold to present collection, 1993.