“Dignity and Imprudence,” a painting by Lilly Martin Spencer that depicts a faithful pup chained to a basket of meats, fish, and vegetables that he has been put in charge of protecting. A sly stray dog does their best to try and deter him from this task. This painting is one of 15 original works by Lilly Martin Spencer that will be on display at the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio until April 28, 2019. (Emily Votaw/WOUB Public Media)

Decorative Arts Center of Ohio Examines Everyday Beauty With ‘Lilly’s World’

Posted on:

< < Back to

Lilly Martin Spencer’s works were among some of the most popular of the mid-19th Century. She was a genre painter, meaning that the works she created depicted scenes from everyday life, and her work often focuses on common, working class human situations: cooking for your family, taking a break from your studies to play with your toys as a child, gathering with your relatives on a balmy July afternoon, and more. Although Spencer was born in Exeter, England, in 1822, she and her family emigrated to the United States when she was 8 years old, ultimately settling in Marietta, Ohio. By the time Spencer was in her early 20s, she was living in Cincinnati and furthering her craft with help from other painters, such as James Beard and John Insco William.

The Decorative Arts Center of Ohio is kicking off their 2019 season with an exhibition entitled Lilly’s World: Decorative Arts and the Art of Lilly Martin Spencer, 1840-1900, which has been curated by Dr. Becky Odom, Ph.D., of the Ohio History Connection. The exhibition features 23 of Spencer’s works, 15 of them being original paintings, and the remainder being prints created during Spencer’s lifetime. Spencer’s work was largely disseminated in print form, which made her images readily available for the American middle class to decorate their homes with. Displayed alongside the paintings are historically accurate recreations made up of various decorative arts pieces from the Ohio History Connection’s collection that are mostly sourced from Ohio.

The entryway into “Lilly’s World: Decorative Arts and the Art of Lilly Martin Spencer, 1840-1900” at the Decorative Arts Center. (Emily Votaw/WOUB Public Media)

“This exhibition came about as a way to tie Spencer’s work to the decorative arts,” said Odom, who defined the decorative arts as being ‘functional items with an aesthetic quality.’ “Not all artwork holds up over time, sometimes it may have meaning with a particular audience at a particular time that doesn’t hold up as time passes. What is unique about Spencer’s work is that it still speaks to us today.”

Odom referenced Spencer’s 1857 work, “This Little Pig Went to Market,” which depicts a mother in an ornate dressing gown, singing to her chubby baby in her bedroom.

Lilly Martin Spencer’s “This Little Pig Went to Market.” (Emily Votaw/WOUB Public Media)

“When we look at this painting, the bedroom may not look like what our bedrooms look like today, we understand what (Spencer) is saying about motherhood,” she said. “We can ground that message in contemporary issues about what it means to be a woman, to be a wife, to be a mother. That is why Spencer’s paintings are still relevant today, even though many of them were painted 150 years ago.”

Some of the mid-nineteenth century toys that are displayed as a part of “Lilly’s World” that correspond with elements in her displayed paintings. (WOUB Public Media/Emily Votaw)

“Lilly’s World” is on display at the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio (145 East Main Street, Lancaster) through April 28, 2019. The Decorative Arts Center of Ohio is open Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m, to 4 p.m., and Sundays 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is always free. 

Alongside the presentation of this exhibition, the Decorative Arts Center also presents the very first mini spotlight installation in the Reese-Peters House parlors. The mini spotlight installation will rotate every six months, and feature items that illuminate what the Reese-Peters House was like as a household throughout it’s prime. For the first half of the year, the spotlight focuses on the historically accurate representations of items that would have been used by the wealthy women who called the Reese-Peters House home. 

Exhibition Programming 

“A Conversation with Lilly Martin Spencer” — Sunday, March 3 

Robin Schuricht will portray Lilly Martin Spencer and recall important life and career events while in costume.


Ed Kitchen presenting information on his grandmother, Tella Kitchen — March 17

In conjunction with the Lilly Martin Spencer exhibition, the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio is showcasing a number of works by Tella Kitchen in their lower gallery. Tella was an acclaimed folk artist who didn’t start painting until late in her life. Tella’s grandson, Ed Kitchen, will speak about Tella’s life and artistic legacy. WOUB will publish a more in-depth feature about Tella on Monday, February 25.


“The Decorative Arts: the Aesthetics of Everyday Life” — Sunday, April 7 

Jeff Darbee and Nancy Rechhie, historic preservation specialists, will present information on how to elevate the aesthetics of everyday life with the decorative arts.