Listening to Father's Watch
oil on academy board
16 in. x 12 in. (40.64 cm x 30.48 cm)
Gift of Henry Melville Fuller,
Lilly Martin Spencer
In 1848, Lilly Spencer moved with her husband and two children (there would be thirteen) from Cincinnati to New York City, where the painter soon gained renown, if not wealth, for her art. Although her first works were literary subjects drawn from Shakespeare and the like, she soon settled on the kind of amusing domestic scene for which she is known today. Drawn from her own experience, such good-natured, humorous renditions of married life as The Young Husband-First Marketing (1854, private collection) struck a familiar chord with her admirers, many of whom were young matrons like herself. By the end of the 1850s, her family growing, Spencer embarked on a series of works depicting family entertainments and baby games. These pictures were shown at the National Academy of Design and in other contemporary art exhibitions; many of Spencer's paintings were also reproduced in the pages of the Cosmopolitan Art Journal, a periodical aimed at middle-class women, who were particularly attracted to such charming nursery scenes as Fi, Fo, Fum (1858, private collection), This Little Pig Went to Market (1857, Ohio Historical Society, Columbus), and Listening to Father's Watch.
The painting Listening to Father's Watch features the artist's husband, Benjamin Rush Spencer, and her two-year-old son, William Henry, in what is, presumably, the family parlor. The father is dressed informally, in a blue patterned dressing gown, and wears carpet slippers on his feet. These are obviously not street clothes; rather, his attire is meant to underscore the coziness of the moment. Sun filters in through a lace-curtained window, lighting the father's genial face and especially the figure of the plump, rosy-cheeked little boy, whose golden ringlets, frilly white dress, and gleeful expression (though they may seem overly sentimental to the modern viewer) epitomized the joys of childhood and virtues of the family circle for Spencer's generation. The picture is rendered in bright, enamel-like colors with a high degree of finish; this vividly detailed technique, as well as the small scale, arched shape (reminiscent of sacred images), and intricate gilt frame make the painting seem gemlike, an object as precious and valued as its message.
Listening to Father's Watch is a reprise of one of Spencer's earliest compositions, Infant and Time (1839-41, location unknown), which a contemporary account described as showing "an infant in its mother's arms, playing with a watch held up before its eyes by a very youthful-looking father" (Marietta [Ohio] Intelligencer, August 26, 1841). By reducing the narrative from three characters to two, Spencer emphasizes the intimacy of the scene and casts the viewer in the role of wife and mother, who witnesses this tender moment with pleasure and affection.
Robin Bolton-Smith and William H. Truettner. Lilly Martin Spencer 1822-1902: The Joys of Sentiment. Ex. cat. National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1973.
1971 "19th Century American Painting form the Collection of Henry Melville Fuller." Traveled to: Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, Sept. 18 - Oct. 17; Mead Art Building, Amherst College, Amherst, MA, Oct. 27 - Nov. 24, cat. no. 57.
1973 "Lilly Martin Spencer: The Joys of Sentiment." Organzied by National Collection of Fine Arts. Traveled to: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, June 15 - Sept. 23; Wellseley College Art Museum, Wellseley, MA, Oct. 12 - Nov. 15.
1975 Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, "Salute to Women." Nov. 14 - 30.
1985 Heritage Plantation of Sandwich, Sandwich, MA, "Young America: Children and Art." May 4 - Oct. 27.
1987 Marian Graves Mugar Art Gallery, Colby-Sawyer College, NH, "New England Women / As Artists, As Subjects / 1820-1920." Nov. 18 - Dec. 11.
1995-1997 "American Art from the Currier Gallery of Art." Organized by the Currier Gallery of Art and the American Federation of Arts. Traveled to: Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando, FL, Dec. 3, 1995 - Jan. 28, 1996; Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, FL, Mar. 15 - Apr. 7, 1996; Art Museum of Western Virginia, Roanoke, VA, Aug. 10 - Oct. 13, 1996; The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, TN, Feb. 2 - Mar. 30, 1997; Frye Art Museum, Seattle, WA, Apr. 25 - June 22, 1997; Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, July 18 - Sept. 8, 1997, cat. no. 13.
2002 Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, "19th Century American Paintings: The Henry Melville Fuller Collection." Feb. 2 - March 11.
2011-2012 Smithsonian American Art Museum, Manchester, NH, "The Great American Hall of Wonders." July 15 , 2011 - Jan. 8, 2012.
Ira Spanierman (dealer), New York, NY
Purchased by Henry Melville Fuller, September 8, 1966
Gift to Currier Gallery of Art, 1974