To walk through any large American art gallery is to see numerous artists akin to Lilly Martin Spencer. Her antebellum themes of family life, jovial occasions and light-hearted mischief are nothing new then, rather what intrigues is the subtle gender repositioning occurring often within Spencer’s work.
Young Husband: First Marketing (1854)
How very humorous! A man is sent out to gather food from the market and, lo and behold, he struggles! Around his uneasy, clopping heels there already lies a tomato amongst radishes, whilst above these a chicken clings tightly by the legs to another bird which is also slipping out of an expertly realised basket menagerie.
Though the image is of course quite funny, both in a contemporary sense of general slapstick and also through its retroactive perspective on stereotype subversion, Young Husband: First Marketing reveals a hidden pain. Namely, the worry of establishing and maintaining a household well within the public arena. This melding then, of genuine hilarity and poignant anxiety, forges a bittersweet aura within. Something Spencer gently complements through her depictions of the rest of the watching crowd featured in Young Husband.
At the front then is, of course, the husband himself – he whose unfocused glance is both uncomfortable and askew. Behind him, a gentleman looks inward with a knowing smile:
And at his left we see a woman hitching her skirt up in an act as gender defiant as the centre-point. When these three are taken together, an odd sense of momentum is formed as their moving directions counteract the other, compounding the sense of isolation the husband no doubt feels.
A common volley of complaint cast at Spencer is that her heads are often too large for her persons. And though perhaps that stands here, it’s undeniable that there is some real prowess demonstrated on the canvas. With the stairs at the right edge being notable in their defined polish whilst the retreating back is commendable in its misty mesh of branches and homes.
Reading the Legend (1852)
A woman stares off; perhaps at the castle, perhaps enraptured within her suitor’s words, perhaps even lost within herself. The magic that has captured her is something that we cannot see. Spencer takes this idea and runs with it within Reading the Legend, employing the signifiers of the image to pose an important question about the nature of imagination.
The castle in the background is Ireland’s Blarney Castle. Spencer always feels more comfortable to me with buildings rather than people, and the subtle battle here between Blarney’s degradation and the creeping vine is executed fantastically. It isn’t hard to imagine the majestic aura this battlement would give off back in its heyday, and at the far right edge we can see more of it crumbling off, suggesting mass.
And while the castle is integral here, it’s the three figures at the forefront that create such an engaging picture. Is it best then to be regaled, as the suitor does, by someone else? To hear them read someone else’s interpretation of a thing to send you elsewhere? Much like I, Tom Kwei, am doing now? I’m reading this picture in my own way for you and letting you know.
Maybe it’s best to be at the woman, to take in what I’ve said but to contemplate separately. Or, finally, you could behave as the dog, ignoring all around you and searching for your own answers within. Regardless of these digressions, Spencer yet again is enshrining the importance of the feminine experience, as here it is she rather than he that is seen as the central figure of the painting.
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