With her rolled-up calico sleeves and ruddy cheeks, this merry-looking cook personifies friendliness, but would you shake her flour-covered hand?
That’s the question Lilly Martin Spencer poses in Shake Hands?, an 1854 painting that has become one of this artist’s most well-known works. At a time when proper behavior was so important in American society, etiquette called for handshakes to be exchanged between social equals. Extending your hand to someone of a different social class was a real faux pas.
The painting’s engraved counterpart, the frontispiece of the December 1857 issue of the Cosmopolitan Art Journal, brought this appealing image into a million middle-class homes, making Lilly a household name.
Shake Hands? is the centerpiece of Power of Painting: Lilly Martin Spencer, an exhibition at the Ohio History Center that is on view through September 6. This much-anticipated exhibition includes other Lilly Martin Spencer works in the Ohio History Connection’s collection, several of which that have never been on display before.
Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902) first displayed her artistic talent as a young girl, using fireplace charcoal to capture likeness of friends in portraits and family members in characteristic poses on the walls of her parents’ Marietta, Ohio home.
In 1841, the teenager left Marietta with her father to study art in Cincinnati. Shepherdess Mending Socks is regarded as the best example of paintings from Lilly’s years in Cincinnati. The painting was one of two conserved for this exhibition with the generous support of Jane Werum. The other, Old Man with Two Children, which Lilly painted in 1845, was also conserved; it is on display on the first floor of the Ohio History Center.
In 1848, Lilly and her husband, Benjamin Rush Spencer, moved to New York City to continue her art education and tap a larger market for her compositions. Later, the Spencers moved to Newark, New Jersey and New York state. In a career spanning more than 60 years, Lilly painted to support herself, her husband and their 13 children, while Benjamin managed the family’s domestic chores and oversaw his wife’s business-related endeavors.
The domestic scenes which Lilly painted earned her a reputation as being a genre painter whose precise brushwork captured scenes with universal appeal. Young Husband: First Marketing and Young Wife: First Stew, companion pieces which Lilly painted in 1854, take a humorous look at a novice grocery shopper and his wife, who is equally inexperienced in the kitchen. In the exhibition, a reproduction of the former painting hangs beside the original of the latter painting, which is cleverly displayed with objects found in kitchens of the 1850s.
Using her family as her models, Lilly created art inspired by her maternal experiences. Two charming examples of the tremendous popular appeal of Lilly’s works are This Little Pig Went to Market, a circa-1857 oil painting in an ornate gold frame…
… and The Pic-nic, or the Fourth of July: A Day to be Remembered, an 1864 engraving that was offered as a subscription premium for Demorest’s Monthly Magazine.
Lilly also taught valuable lessons in her paintings.
“I want to try to make all my paintings have a tendency towards moral improvement as far as it is in the power of painting, speaking from those who are good and virtuous, to counteract evil,” she wrote her parents in an 1847 letter that is part of the Lilly Martin Spencer Papers (MSS 972), an Ohio History Connection manuscript collection.
To discover more about this extraordinary artist, see Lilly Martin Spencer, 1822-1902: The Joys of Sentiment was published for a 1973 exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Lilly Martin Spencer, American Painter of the Nineteenth Century is a 1959 master’s thesis by Ann Byrd.
Shake Hands? was included in Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine, a recent exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art that focused on artistic representations of food. In addition to the companion catalogue edited by Judith A. Barter, the exhibition lives on in an online cookbook that features both vintage recipes and new ones created by Chicago culinarians. Shake Hands? inspired Meg Galus of NoMI Kitchen to create recipes for Chocolate Chunk Gingersnaps and Sweet Potato Pudding Bonbons.
Join curator Emily Lang for a tour of Power of Painting: Lilly Martin Spencer on Saturday, August 29 at 2:00 p.m. at the Ohio History Center.