The Home as the Center in the Work of Lilly Martin Spencer

A Note from Bryna R. Campbell, Editor: In our last post, we took a closer look at the public awareness campaign, #5womenartists, created by the National Museum of Women in the Arts to raise awareness of the historical contributions of women artists. In this blog post, guest author Melissa Medefesser make her contribution to this effort with an exploration of the work of 19th-century American painter Lilly Martin Spencer. Spencer’s works focus on a particularly important place in American society that is sometimes overlooked in discussions about the art – the home – and its role for women and men in the period before the Civil War. 

Peeling Onions, by Lilly Martin Spencer

spencer peeling onions - 1850sSentimentalism was at the heart of antebellum America. With changing family dynamics, women were seen as the head of the domestic sphere and increasingly tied to ideas of sentiment and emotion. This spirit of the time can be seen in Lilly Martin Spencer’s Peeling Onions (1852). Peeling Onions depicts a young, middle-class woman wiping tears from her eyes as she cuts an onion during a meal preparation. While the tears appear to be a result of chopping onions, they also relate to nineteenth-century American ideas relating to the sentimentality and emotions of women in the domestic sphere.

The woman in Peeling Onions stands behind a wooden counter with the ingredients for the meal laid out in front of her. She is isolated in a dimly lit kitchen with an austere background. She firmly grips a partially cut onion with one hand while the other wipes tears from her eye resulting in a half hidden face. She is still holding the cutting knife, so she uses the back of her hand to wipe her face while pointing the sharp edge away from her. There is a sense of sorrow, conveyed by her slightly red and swollen eye is further accentuated through her downturned brow and lips. Tears fill the bottom half of her eye and can be seen running down her nose and cheek. Yet there is an ambiguity as to whether these tears are primarily caused by the cutting of the onion or are due in part to her sentimental state as she begins the overwhelming task of meal preparation.

The Culture of  Separate Spheres

Nineteenth-century views of sentimentality stemmed from new family dynamics in which love, harmony, and equality between spouses and children, rather than the traditional patriarchal hierarchy, were at the forefront of the household. Industrialization in America had created more jobs for men outside the home often leaving women in charge of the domestic sphere while their husbands were at work. This created “separate spheres” in which men were associated with the public sphere and women were associated with the private sphere.[1] Within this context, the status of women was seen as different from men, but not necessarily unequal. While they were confined to their domestic and private roles without the rights to vote or engage in politics, women were seen to have an important impact on society through raising children. The home was seen as a place in which children could be shaped into good or evil and it was the responsibility of the domestic mother to instill high morality and virtue onto her family. This, in turn, was instilled into the nation.[2]

Spencer - Domestic Happiness - 1849
Lilly Martin Spencer, Domestic Happiness. 1849.  Detroit Institute of Arts.

The idea of separate spheres is explored in clever ways in Spencer’s Domestic Happiness (1849), which portrays a husband and wife watching their two young children as they sleep peacefully intertwined with each other. While the image evokes the sentiment associated with the mid-nineteenth-century family, there is also a power dynamic displayed through the gesture of the woman. She places the back of her right hand on her husband’s chest as though guarding him from waking children. This scene conveys the woman as the head of the domestic sphere with the slightly humorous tone often seen in Spencer’s works.

Sentimentality, Domesticity, and the Art Market

Many of Spencer’s works, including Domestic Happiness and Peeling Onions, were widely circulated for consumers in the art market during the antebellum years.  The market found success in selling copies and prints of art works to the general public as a more affordable and accessible means for middle-class consumers to own works of art. This period also saw an emergence of middle-class women as consumers for the domestic sphere. In addition to their domestic tasks and raising children, women were responsible for decorating their homes, including purchasing décor and paintings for walls.[3]

Works such as Peeling Onions created a more marketable connection with the viewer through direct conversation and sentimental engagement. The woman in Peeling Onions looks directly outward with her tearful eye, inviting the viewer into her private space. This created an empathetic connection while also breaking boundaries of the private spheres, which often left domestic women feeling lonely and isolated.[4] The nineteenth-century domestic woman viewer would have been aware of the way onions irritate the tear ducts as well as the overwhelming task of preparing a meal. The heightened naturalism of the painting helped viewers associate the scene with their own domestic space. Spencer’s attention to detail in the every day are demonstrated in the ingredients laid on the table in a still life setting. The fruits and vegetables show imperfections and signs of decay and small pieces of stems are scattered across the table.

The woman in Peeling Onions is depicted holding a cutting knife in the same hand that is wiping tears from her face. Although she is depicted in with an expression that could be construed as weak, the relationship between the placement of the knife and the woman’s face convey a sense of power in the situation. Her firm grip and strong arms emphasize this power, lending this work a double edged quality.

Spencer enjoyed leaving her works open to interpretation. This intentional ambivalence was a quality that allowed them to be more marketable to a large middle-class audience.[5] Her use of humor further allowed for this ambiguity.  Spencer did not address any political or social issues, such as abolitionism or women’s suffrage, in her paintings. Rather, she conveyed the sentimental spirit of the times with a touch of wit.


[1] Tiffany K. Wayne, Women’s Roles in Nineteenth-Century America. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2007): 2. See also, April F. Masten, “Shake Hands? Lilly Martin Spencer and the Politics of Art,” American Quarterly 56, no. 2 (2004): 358.

[2] Elizabeth O’Leary, At Beck and Call: The Representation of Domestic Servants in Nineteenth-Century American Painting. (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996): 75.

[3] Annelise K. Madsen, “Recipes for Refinement: Art and Sociability in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” in Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine, ed. Judith A. Barter (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago: 2013): 92.

[4] David Lubin, “Lilly Martin Spencer’s Domestic Genre Painting in Antebellum America,” in American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature, ed. David C. Miller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993): 152.

[5] Ibid., 155.

Feature Image: Lilly Martin Spencer, Peeling Onions. 1852. Oil on canvas, 36 in. x 29 in (91.44cm x 73.66 cm). Memorial Art Gallery: Rochester, NY.

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