The Home of the Red, White and Blue
Artist: Lilly Martin Spencer
Medium: Oil on canvas
Citation: Lily Martin Spencer, The Home of the Red, White and Blue, c. 1867–1868. Oil on canvas, 24 x 35in. Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2007.1
Rights Holder: Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2007.1
Engage! Theme: Community
The union of America’s disparate class and ethnic groups is a central theme of Lilly Martin Spencer’s painting, a hopeful allegory of the role of women in restoring the Union following the devastation of the Civil War.
It pictures an extended family offering refreshment to a poor organ grinder and his shy barefoot daughter. Dominant at the composition’s center, the white-clad matron of the family is a self-portrait of Spencer, who was both a professional artist and the mother of thirteen.
In the foreground, a torn Stars and Stripes and a sewing box suggest that women, through their natural abilities to heal, will bind up the nation’s wounds at a time when American men, represented by the wounded Union veteran in the shadows on the left, are exhausted and incapacitated.
In the kindly gesture toward the organ grinder, rendered as a stereotypically Italian figure, and the inclusion, at the right, of what the artist’s contemporaries would have recognized as an Irish servant, Spencer indicates that women also can bridge the divides between America’s different ethnic groups and between the native-born and immigrants.
Tying the figures together, the milk, in goblet and pitcher, further symbolizes the notion of feminine nurturing as the key to the future social health of the nation.
Spencer’s painting presents a nineteenth-century view of American society, with a white, middle-class, native-born family as the foundation and poor European immigrants as intruders. The gracious welcome the mother and children offer them would have struck art consumers of Spencer’s day as generous rather than patronizing, and they would have been untroubled by the stereotyping of the Irish and Italian figures by their clothing, physiognomies, or occupations.
Radical in its day for its relatively sympathetic portrayal of immigrants and its hopes for cross-cultural relations, Spencer’s image nonetheless affirms traditional ideals of domestic femininity, notwithstanding the artist’s personal defiance of conventional prohibitions on women as professionals.
Who are these women? Why are they together here and what are they doing? What different roles do the women have? How do they relate to the men in the image?
This was painted in the years immediately following the Civil War, when many men were returning home from battle and the nation felt beleaguered. How are the women responding to this? According to the painting, what roles can women play in repairing the divisions in American society?
What roles do women play in your community? How are they different from the roles women play in the painting?
Further Discussion Questions & Activity Ideas:
The artist has depicted a number of social classes and ethnicities in this scene; while most of the figures are middle class, the organ grinder is meant to be an Italian immigrant, and the redheaded woman in the red dress is an Irish servant. To our twenty-first-century eyes, this doesn’t seem like a particularly diverse group. If you were to create an image of the American population, or even of just your neighborhood today, who would be included? And, like the women in this painting, who would you depict as trying to bridge the divide between different American communities?
Terra Foundation for American Art website (artist’s biography and descriptive interpretation of this artwork).