The Artist and Her Family at a Fourth of July Picnic

Lilly Martin Spencerca. 1864

National Museum of Women in the Arts

National Museum of Women in the Arts

Lilly Martin Spencer’s “The Artist and Her Family at a Fourth of July Picnic” depicts an idyllic genre scene in which well-dressed, middle-class Americans celebrate their country’s independence by eating, drinking, and entertaining one another.

The painter’s husband, Benjamin, sprawls on the ground at the center of the scene, his weight apparently too much for the tree swing. Though most of the assembled crowd seems highly amused by his fall, a child attempts to help him up. A woman with arms outstretched, an image of the artist herself, comes to his aid from the left.

On one level, this painting is exactly what it seems: a charming scene that pokes fun at human foibles. However, recent scholarship has suggested that Spencer’s painting is also an allegorical commentary on the state of the nation and the abolition of slavery. According to this interpretation, Benjamin’s undignified pose and the general merriment that greets his accident indicate a lack of respect for traditional authority.

Additionally, the male servant at the lower right distractedly spills wine onto a woman’s dress; his female counterpart looks away from the baby in her charge; a boy shoots a pistol into the air; and a young woman models a soldier’s cap. All of these vignettes can be read as symbols of societal upheaval.

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  • Title: The Artist and Her Family at a Fourth of July Picnic
  • Creator: Lilly Martin Spencer
  • Date: ca. 1864
  • 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.
  • Physical Dimensions: w63 x h49.5 in (Without frame)
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Given in memory of Muriel Gucker Hahn by her loving husband, William Frederick Hahn, Jr. Conservation funds generously provided by the Florida State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Photography by Lee Stalsworth
  • External Link: National Museum of Women in the Arts
  • Medium: Oil on canvas
  • National Museum of Women in the Arts’ Exhibitions: “Four Centuries of Women’s Art: The National Museum of Women in the Arts,” 1990–91; “American Women Artists: 1830-1930,” 1987