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Best known for her paintings of family and domestic life in mid-19th century America, Lilly Martin Spencer was also a talented painter of still lifes. Indeed, paintings like “The Artist and Her Family at a Fourth of July Picnic” contain sensitively rendered still-life elements.

“Still Life with Watermelon, Pears, and Grapes” was an appropriate subject for the artist on several levels. The selection of fruit and the realism with which it is rendered may reflect Spencer’s preference for American subjects and styles.

Also, still lifes had long been considered suitable subjects for women artists since they could be painted in the home and didn’t require study of the human form.

Spencer demonstrates her skill at rendering various textures, depicting with great realism the moisture on the grapes, fuzzy texture of the peach, juicy flesh of the watermelon, and the weathered stone ledge on which they sit.

While the fruits appear to be at the peak of perfection, the bites taken out of the watermelon slice add a sense of immediacy to the composition.

Details

  • Title: Still Life with Watermelon, Pears, Grapes
  • Creator: Lilly Martin Spencer
  • Date: ca. 1860
  • selected exhibition history: “Lilly Martin Spencer, 1822-1902: The Joys of Sentiment,” National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C., 1973
  • artist profile: Lilly Martin Spencer’s still-life and portrait paintings were popular, but she became particularly well known for humorous domestic genre scenes. In 1830, the eight-year-old Angélique Marie Martin, called Lilly, arrived in the U.S. from her native England. Her parents, a politically progressive couple of French descent, raised their daughter in the small town of Marietta, Ohio. When her artistic abilities and ambitions outstripped the cultural resources available there, her father took her to Cincinnati, where she studied with the portrait painter John Insco Williams. At 22, Lilly Martin married Benjamin Rush Spencer. They made their home first in New York City, then in Newark, New Jersey, and then moved into a large house in Highland, New York, across the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie. The couple had 13 children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. Lilly was the principal breadwinner, while Benjamin managed their growing household. In the late 1840s and 1850s, the artist’s work became popular in Europe and America. Spencer exhibited her paintings at the National Academy of Design and was represented at the Women’s Pavilion of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. She also produced work for a number of prominent patrons. However, much of Spencer’s fame resulted from the widespread sale of inexpensive engraved copies of her oil paintings.
  • Training: National Academy of Design, New York, 1848–50; Private lessons, Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Physical Dimensions: w17.143 x h13.125 in (Without frame)
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photography by Lee Stalsworth
  • Medium: Oil on canvas

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