Art Review: “Young Husband, First Marketing” by Lilly Martin Spencer

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Lilly Martin Spencer
Playfully Paints
Her Husband’s Travails

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½  x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½ x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

In the newly appointed American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, entering gallery 758 one encounters a rectangular painting of modest size (a couple of feet wide by a little more than that tall) in a gilded frame with ornate corners and a similarly colored plaque that announces in black lettering the subject (Young Husband, First Marketing) and artist (Lilly Martin Spencer), and includes dates that seem to indicate the maker’s life span (1822 and 1902).

In the vertical center of this oil-on-canvas composition, a man clutches in his right hand a folded black umbrella, while with his other hand he grabs the far side (from him) of a wicker basket and one of the legs of a chicken carcass attempting to escape from it. Roped to the feet of that fowl another one has already broken free and dangles head first in front, and to the proper left, of the burden bearer at an angle reflecting that of the right leg the man has raised so that his knee might function as a platform–albeit an unsteady one–to support this cornucopia of foodstuff in danger of toppling over.

On the glistening ground to his right, a bunch of carrots straddles some stalks of rhubarb, the collective leaves of which abut a splayed head of lettuce on which two cracked eggs spill out their contents. Close by, a lone tomato has come to rest on the center of the lower border of the painting, below the shoe heel of the man wrestling for control of his charges.

Light directs the eye to the man’s neatly bearded face with its furrowed, knitted brow capping lowered lids and eyes that gaze down at the vegetables on the ground. Lest anyone miss the ongoing drama of the basket contents, the artist has reserved the brightest painted value for the white eggs participating in it. Keeping them company are a bunch of asparagus, three tomatoes, an orange gourd, a pineapple, some greens, a cut of meat and the aforementioned dead chicken. Only a small portion (perhaps a third) of the basket’s lid rests on those contents, effectively revealing them as it slips back and to the proper right of the protagonist.

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½  x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½ x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This struggling man is dressed in black top coat, dark brown pants and stack-heeled black shoes with buttoned grey spats. Under his coat, he has piled on several layers of clothing, including something black (perhaps a sweater) fastened just under his white collar, and a maroon vest. On his head he sports a squat, brimmed hat.

To his proper right and a few steps behind him, another even more carefully bearded man strides toward the left edge of the painting, elegantly attired in black top hat, leather gloves, brown coat, black pants, similarly styled shoes, black vest with a row of light paint spots crossing his vest (perhaps a gold chain for a pocket watch), and a light-colored shirt with two small areas of dark paint near the collar that might be a bow tie. He holds over his head a large open umbrella and leans forward while turning his head toward the painting’s center of interest. His eyes on the basket, this striding man’s upturned mouth corners, bared upper teeth, puffed out left cheek that catches the only high-value light falling on him, all indicate the action of the zygomatic muscle pulling his expression into a smile.

In the far background, two other figures walk toward each other in front of a wall covered with posters. The one to the left of the two foregrounded men, a woman, lifts up her heavy-cloth brown skirt and lacy petticoat to reveal legs clad in white hose and black shoes. A dark-turquoise-and-rust-colored scarf covers her head, and a waist-length reddish-brown jacket of thick material protects her upper body. The umbrella she holds open over her head runs parallel to the one held by the striding man, pairing her with him in the same way as does the turn of her head toward the man with the basket. Her sufficiently lighted face with its open eyes, upturned lip corners and puffed cheek echoes, too, that other onlooker’s amusement.

The other background figure, a man (more sketchily rendered), walks onto the scene from the right, leaning forward at an angle parallel to that of the uselessly folded umbrella gripped by the man with the tilting basket. Carrying a pail on his left arm, this ruggedly dressed character steadies it with his right, far more successful in this task than his counterpart up front. Although similarly not protected by an umbrella, he wears a tall, wrinkled hat with a brim ample enough to shade his eyes, and wide-cuffed boots that reach almost to his knees.

The curb of the sidewalk on which they walk forms the horizontal midline of the composition. Green-crowned trees of differing heights rise up behind the wall that runs along the length of this sidewalk, turning a corner on the far left and ending at that edge of the canvas.

Behind the foliage, several structures comprise an urban skyline, all vaguely indicated except for the one seen in the space between the open umbrella of the dapper strider and the hat of the man with the basket. On the roof of that more well-defined, light-grey house sit several reddish-brown chimneys. Across its face, two rows of windows are visible, each window framed by sills and flanking shutters.

The painting has an overall warm, brown tone, punctuated by the red of the tomatoes, white and orange of the cracked eggs, and white, red and green of the basket contents. Highlights on the face and hands of the foremost figure, on the butt of the hanging chicken carcass and on the cheek of the striding man provide additional areas of contrast.

Splashes of low-value highlights on the cobblestone street and stone-slab sidewalk create the impression of moisture. Resembling water stains on the four-stepped stoop that occupies half of the lower right quadrant, a brown wash trickles over thicker light-brown paint. The grey-green trees, turquoise of the woman’s scarf, green of a row of grass growing along the base of the wall and of some of the produce, all combine to complement the reddish-brown elements in the rest of the painting.

Time and the environment have affected the painting’s surface. The hanging chicken’s head, neck and upper body have become transparent, revealing the sidewalk and cobblestones behind it, and the basket’s handle has practically disappeared. Craquelure has developed in the lightest areas of the sidewalk, helpfully in the broken eggs on the ground but also in the basketed ones, and throughout the rest of the painting, including in the darks. There are two prominent areas of concentric cracks, one between the lifted right foot of the man balancing the basket and the forward foot of the man walking behind him, and the other at the right shoulder of the latter.

The bright light that falls on the protagonist conflicts with the many cues that this beleaguered man is caught in a windy downpour, unable to open his umbrella because of an uncooperative basket of provisions. Yet that doesn’t detract from the whimsical way in which Spencer has successfully poked fun at a young husband grappling with the challenges of his new role.