Nurturing Change: Lilly Martin Spencer's Images of Children
Napolitano, Laura Groves
Promey, Sally M.
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This dissertation is the first full-length study to concentrate on American genre painter Lilly Martin Spencer's images of children, which constituted nearly one half of her saleable production during the height of her artistic career from 1848 to 1869. At this time, many young parents received advice regarding child rearing through books and other publications, having moved away from their families of origin in search of employment. These literatures, which gained in popularity from the 1830s onward, focused on spiritual, emotional, and disciplinary matters. My study considers four major themes from the period's writing on child nurture that changed over time, including depravity and innocence, parent/child bonding, standards of behavior and moral rectitude, and children's influence on adults. It demonstrates how Spencer's paintings, prints, and drawings featuring children supported and challenged these evolving ideologies, helping to shed light not only on the artist's reception of child-rearing advice, but also on its possible impact on her middle-class audience, to whom she closely catered. In four chapters, I investigate Spencer's images of sleeping children as visual equivalents of contemporary consolation literature during a time of high infant and child mortality rates; her paintings of parent/child interaction as promoting separation from mothers and emotional bonding with fathers; her prints of mischievous children as both considering changing ideals about children's behavior and comforting Anglo-American citizens afraid of what they saw as threatening minority groups; and her pictures with Civil War and Reconstruction subject matter as contending with the popular concept of the moral utility of children. By framing my interpretations of Spencer's output around key issues in the period's dynamic child-nurture literature, I advance new comprehensive readings of many of her most well-known paintings, including Domestic Happiness, Fi, Fo, Fum!, and The Pic Nic or the Fourth of July. I also consider work often overlooked by other art historians, but which received acclaim in Spencer's own time, including the lithographs of children made after her designs, and the allegorical painting Truth Unveiling Falsehood. Significantly, I provide the first in-depth analysis of a newly rediscovered Reconstruction-era painting, The Home of the Red, White, and Blue.