The Home of the Red, White and Blue

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The Home of the Red, White and Blue
c. 1867-1868
Lilly Martin Spencer
1822-1902
Oil on canvas
24 x 30 in.
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund
2007.1

Lilly Martin Spencer’s painting career focused on scenes of women and home life. She examined those subjects here as a way to address the aftermath of the Civil War. The country had been torn apart, much like the battered American flag in the foreground. Compare the flag to the central group of females in this painting. The mother wears white (this is a self-portrait of the artist) and her daughters are dressed in red and blue. Spencer’s women are patriotic and nurturing. The grandmother in the background sews together a red, white, and blue banner. Directed by his mother, a young boy offers a cup of milk to a poor organ grinder and his young daughter. A red-headed nursemaid holds a baby and a pitcher of milk.  Americans at the time are likely to have recognized these last figures as immigrants—the organ grinder from Italy and the nursemaid from Ireland—because of their clothing and physical characteristics.

In this painting, Spencer shows how the job of repairing the nation had become women’s work. The men in the scene play a secondary role: the Union soldier-husband at the left is injured from the war, the grandfather is old and tired, and the boy is too young to have participated in the conflict. It is the women who must repair the nation by sewing the flag back together and nurturing the young, poor, and wounded. In the Civil War era, middle class white women like those you see here were expected to do this sort of work. However, Spencer suggests that their actions reached beyond the household to heal the whole nation.

Questions:

1. By focusing on Northern women, who does this painting leave out? Do you think the Northern audience was thinking about African Americans or Southerners in the same way that it thought about this family?

2. Although this scene has some elements which are very serious, like the torn flag and the wounded Union soldier, Spencer often used humor in her paintings. Talk about the mood of this painting and give examples.

3. In the nineteenth century, society confined middle class white women like Spencer to working in the home rather than the public sphere. Why do you think Spencer focused on traditional woman’s work in her painting? 

Further reading:
National Collection of Fine Arts.Lilly Martin Spencer 1822-1902: The Joys of Sentiment. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973.

Newberry Library. "Home of the Red, White, and Blue." Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North. http://publications.newberry.org/digitalexhibitions/exhibits/show/homefront/end/warrwb.

Wierich, Jochen. “’War Spirit at Home’: Lilly Martin Spencer, Domestic Painting, and Artistic Hierarchy.” Winterthur Portfolio 37 (Spring 2002): 23-42. 


©Terra Foundation for American Art