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Unpacking Feminist Content in Lilly Martin Spencer’s “War Spirit at Home”

December 17, 2009

This article serves as a brief introduction to the genre painting, “War Spirit At Home, Celebrating the Battle at Vicksburg” (1866) produced following the conclusion of the Civil War by the female artist Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902). Meant both as a document of domestic life during the war and as a political piece in support of a victory for the Union army, “War Spirit at Home” presents a window into the life of a Civil War woman and her family.

"War Spirit at Home" by Lily Martin Spencer, 1866

Spencer was highly encouraged to pursue the life of an artist by her French émigré parents, and in particular by her mother, a Fourierist. A Fourierist was a follower of Charles Fourier, the French utopian socialist and philosopher who is credited with coining the term “féminisme” in 1837 and advocated for the social and political liberties of women. A gifted child, by the time of the Civil War (1861-1865) Spencer was the sole breadwinner in her own very large family, which included her husband and seven surviving children.

Although critics often deride Spencer’s work as a sentimental response to her experience as a mother, many of her images complicate this notion by presenting a depth of meaning that extends beyond a simplistic domestic narrative. “War Spirit at Home” depicts the American woman as negotiator, peacekeeper and homemaker, delineating the home as a location of both battle and recovery.  The work also solidifies Spencer’s import in the history of American painting, which has frequently been undermined by scholars but has been met by a resurgence of interest in recent years. In particular, Jochen Wierich’s article ”War Spirit At Home: Lilly Martin Spencer, Domestic Painting and Artistic Hierarchy”[1] is a great start on the road to reclaiming the importance of this long derided American artist.

“War Spirit at Home” (1866) is a domestic genre scene charged with autobiographical honesty. Many scholars claim that the scene depicted is Spencer’s own kitchen, where she and her children celebrate the news of Grant’s victory at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. The news was reported in The New York Times, a copy of which is held by the figure, a portrait of the artist herself, seated on the right of the canvas. Through this self-portrait, Spencer underlines and examines her professional and domestic roles as both artist and mother.

The central figure of the servant, whose dark hair is almost haloed by the lighter wall looks forlornly toward the mother and baby as she wipes dishes. In the center of the painting parading toward the figure of the mother, three children march military-style, evoking the clamor of stomping feet and impromptu music. Even the cat hidden beneath the table engages in disruptive play, stalking the little girl’s trailing red ribbon.

Lacking an adult male figure, the painting reflects the absence of men in the home during this period in American history. While some contemporary paintings of domestic interiors show elderly and youthful men following news of the war, or a complete familial scene, Spencer’s painting represents a unique image of domestic life- a female space. Ironically, the place of absent male figure would have been occupied by Spencer’s real-life husband, who took over household duties and childcare when the family could not afford to hire outside help and thus would have been a stand-in for the female maid and not the dominant and discursive mother.

The chaos with which Spencer is surrounded is the ordinary chaos of a middle-class, nineteenth-century American mother. Yet, it seems to be Spencer’s intention to reveal chaos tempered by maternal order, for according to the identity she presents on the canvas, she remains the central axis. The children march in front of the mother; the infant stabilizes itself by reaching up to its mother’s breast; the mother has read aloud the happy news to the children, and that this is why they celebrate. The children and mother are united, and it is her stable and vocal presence that makes the scene a safe space.

The act of reading charges the atmosphere. The newspaper as a mode of Civil War-time communication, disseminating important information and rousing public support (or dissent), is much studied and discussed. As Wierich relates,

“The Civil War has been called the ‘first living-room war‘; the illustrated press, in conjunction with the photography industry, turned it into a communication revolution.”[2]

People would gather around the paper to gossip and share stories and letters with one another.

Spencer’s own brush mimics the communicative power of her portrait’s voice, for as her portrait reads the words on the page, so too does she trace the scene with her paints. She is the creator of word and language, of image and scene, and, of course, of the children themselves. Thus, the audience of her painting replicates this community through shared viewership. The ideological import of the patriotic reportage of victories in the newspaper during the war also cannot be ignored. Each child in this domestic parade marches by, dressed in something reminiscent of military attire — a drum, fife, or hat — enacting their future roles as soldiers and obedient citizens of America interpolated by the call of the national news. While the Civil War rages on across the pages of the newspaper, the children can innocently rejoice, play and revel in the joy taken at the news of a successful battle.

Provoked by the questions raised by the causes of the Civil War- emancipation and the promise of fraternal equality –women’s groups began to clamor for their own equality and political power. This fractious undertone to the work’s jovial surface meaning relates to its subversive commentary on the trapped status of women in American society. “War Spirit at Home” does allude to the inequalities facing women on a daily basis.

The role of Spencer as reader, tender mother and teacher aligns the painting with the contemporary rising voice of suffragettes. In particular, the pointed gaze of the servant toward the raucous fray provokes several questions. Is she thinking of lost loved ones, wishing she could celebrate with her own family, or is she longing to learn to read or to break out of the confines that her sex and society’s strata have compelled upon her? While she is the only one who attempts to assert order on the room, by wiping and ordering the dishes on the shelves, her figure is set apart pictorially from the enveloping and inviting scene. As her coloring aligns her with the background, she recedes into the shadows of the house, becoming wall or furniture.

The servant is the subject of continued scholarly debate and remains a questionable figure in the interpretation of this painting. Citing Spencer as a feminist is shaky scholarly ground and moves toward problematic issues of artistic intention. As Wierich, citing David Lubin, writes:

“although there is no easy way to judge Spencer’s politics… her works can …be considered ‘subpolitical interventions’; that is, Spencer worked within the conventions of middle-class domesticity but asserted her personal female viewpoint.”

Contrarily, Elsie Freivogel wrote of Spencer’s relation to Feminism that she was “unconcerned with feminist politics and in most ways denied her connection with it.”[3] This assumption leads from a letter that Spencer wrote to her mother when invited to attend a woman’s rights meeting in Worcester, MA. She replied, “My time…is so entirely engrossed…that I am not…able to give my attention to anything else…You know dear Mother that that is your point of exertion and attention and study like my painting is mine.”[4] This contrary treatment is indicative of all Spencer scholars who select a side on opposing poles, either avoiding feminist connotations entirely or dancing around them as “political” but not feminist.

Assertions as to whether the painting is “feminist” or not seem to me to be secondary to what the work actually asserts to its viewer through its content. I have attempted to turn to the visual language of “War Spirit at Home” and engage with the underpinnings that are represented by the figure’s interactions, the overall composition and the historical moment of its creation. Drawing back the fragile curtain that surrounded and obscured the inequalities of female domestic life in Civil War era America, this work exposes domestic issues to a large American audience by dressing them in the popular  tropes of domestic genre painting.

Spencer’s painting thoroughly problematizes issues of domesticity and class, gender and patriotism but does not offer us clear conclusions. The unusual balancing act between chaos and domesticity represented in “War Spirit at Home” serves as a direct and poignant metaphor for the tenuous balance that the United States as a nation was struggling to achieve in the fractious post-bellum era, when Spencer completed this work. I contend that the dualistic role of Spencer’s painting as both subversive feminist commentary and as a celebration of domesticity and American patriotism made Spencer a unique and important artist during this era — and this work in particular, a relevant and valuable document of American visual history.

Naomi Slipp is an alumni of the University of Chicago, where she received her master’s degree in art history. Currently an intern for the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago, IL, her academic work consistently engages with American art of the nineteenth century.

[1] Jochen Wierich. “War Spirit at Home: Lilly Martin Spencer, Domestic Painting and Artistic Hierarchy” in Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), pp. 23-42.

[2] Wierich, 30.

[3] Elsie F. Freivogel. “Lilly Martin Spencer,” in Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 12, No. 4 (1972), p. 14.

[4] Freivogel, p 9.

  1. farley griner permalink
    December 18, 2009 3:58 pm

    I’d like to see the painting in person and observe some of the subtleties you describe. I wonder why she didn’t include her husband in the scene.


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