"Shake Hands? Lilly Martin Spencer and the Politics of Art" connects the rise and fall of a female visual artist to the rise and fall of Jacksonian democracy. While other historians have used the biography and art of genre painter Lilly Martin Spencer to complicate the cultural politics of nineteenth-century domesticity, this essay follows the artist from Cincinnati to New York City during the 1840s and 1850s to critique and in part rewrite the monolithic construction of Jacksonian democracy. Lilly Martin Spencer serves as a case study of what happened when a woman artist with talent took advantage of the institutions, markets, and aesthetic taste inspired by democratic nationalism—a form of patriotic pride in American democracy shared by mid-nineteenth-century citizens. Through economic activity that stemmed from and helped perpetuate popular rule and institutions, democratic nationalists created a new form of political economy that linked together large and small players, Democrats and Whigs, men and women, east and west. Women artists benefited from this activity in several ways. The commercial art market, patronage, exhibitions, aesthetic theories, and taste being developed by Americans under the influence of democratic nationalism encompassed women's art. National and regional art institutions established to train a new cohort of American artists espoused egalitarianism and accepted females. And women were moved by their own sense of democratic nationalism to pursue art. By focusing on the origins of the political meaning embedded in the artist's most widely circulated painting, Shake Hands?, this article shows how Spencer's youthful aspirations and experiences as a celebrated artist were the products of an egalitarian ethos that dominated American economic, political and cultural life during the Jacksonian era. "The people" liked Spencer's paintings because they shared her democratic sensibility. In the end, Spencer's life and work reveal the reaches and limits of this short-lived political economy as it played out in the cultural realm.


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pp. 348-394
Launched on MUSE
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