Arts Everyday Living: American Artist and Mother, Lilly Martin Spencer–A Special New Dress

Lilly Martin Spencer, We Both Must Fade (Mrs. Fithian), 1869, oil on canvas, 72 x 53 3/4 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., Museum Purchase, 1970.

Title: We Both Must Fade

Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902)

How many of us have had a favorite dress or suit which we still remember even after the passing of many years? Brand new and shiny like the striking blue gown, freshly unpacked from its box in the painting above.

Mrs. Fithian is the wearer’s name. She poses demurely for the painter, Lilly Martin Spencer. Is Mrs. Fithian perhaps still unaccustomed to her apparel? Or maybe she’s just shy?

Spencer herself was probably far from retiring. Not only did she forge a successful career in nineteenth-century America where women artists were rare, but she also bore thirteen children. In fact, she was the family’s main breadwinner, while her husband provided what must have been much needed domestic support.

Fast facts: One of the first important American women artists. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, she eventually settled in New York City where she became a popular artist of genre or domestic scenes. Married in her early twenties, Spencer and her husband had thirteen children, seven of whom reached maturity. Her extensive family was often featured in her paintings. Spencer had a long career, working up until her death at the age of eighty.




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