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Mending America, women and the Civil War

Lilly Martin Spencer's painting, "The Home of the Red, White, and Blue," showcases the role of women and immigrants in post-Civil War America. The artwork, filled with symbolism, portrays a hopeful vision of the nation's restoration led by the American family. Created by Smarthistory, Beth Harris, and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(light jazz music) - [Beth] We're here in the galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago looking at a painting by Lilly Martin Spencer. Now, although we're the Art Institute Chicago, this particular painting happens to be in the collection of the Terra Foundation for American Art. And the painting is called The Home of the Red, White, and Blue. This is much more than a simple genre painting. - [Taylor] This painting rife with symbolism. At the very bottom we can see an American flag that's literally ripped in two. This painting was done between 1867 and 1868, mere years after the Civil War ended. You can see the red and the white stripes bunch together on the ground and then the blue with the stars is sitting on a little bench. - [Beth] And surrounding that is whole host of figures, but our eye is drawn primarily to the female figures here. - [Taylor] Our eyes are immediately drawn to the woman in the center. She's bathed in this beautiful golden light. That's a self-portrait of the artist Lilly Martin Spencer and she's surrounded by two of her children and the fact that she is dressed in white and her older daughter is dressed in red and her younger daughter is dressed in blue is another aspect of the symbolic nature of his painting and a statement that she's trying to make about the United States at the time. The organ grinder and the young girl next to him are likely performing for this group. - [Beth] So we have the organ grinder, perhaps a Italian immigrant, and the red-haired woman on the right is likely an Irish immigrant. - [Taylor] Lilly Martin Spencer herself was an immigrant. There's an interesting statement here that the artist, I think, is trying to make and it has to do with the role of women and immigrants in the United States after the Civil War. - [Beth] The violence of the Civil War and the beginnings of Reconstruction were an enormously difficult period in American history. What would be the new role of African Americans in the country? And so many women had entered the workforce during the war and contributed to the war effort, many of them by sewing American flags, sewing uniforms, sewing caps, those women returned to the home after the war but felt this very patriotic connection to the union, to helping to restore the United States. - [Taylor] And we can see a very clear example of that in a few different places in this painting. You have a sewing kit at the very bottom right in front of the flag, it looks like it's just waiting to be used. Likewise, the woman in the center in white and her young daughter behind her in red both have thimbles on their middle fingers, another example of the work that they're going to do to help restore the nation. - [Beth] So this idea that through their domestic functions women could contribute significantly to the development of the United States toward the restoration of the Union. - [Taylor] The point is made even further by the husband who's sitting at left, somewhat in shadow. He's wearing what looks like a uniform. We think that he may have gone out to fight and come back injured, he's got his crutches behind him. She's alluding to the fact that so many able-bodied young men came back from the war unable to help restore the country. - [Beth] What's so wonderful about this painting too is all of the generations that have come together, so we have an older woman, an older gentleman, that maternal figure of the artist herself with her children and nursemaid and then the American flag conveying this idea that it is the American family that will lead the country into the future. - [Taylor] Here we have this wonderful example of how women in particular could contribute to the recreation of a country that had been torn apart. - [Beth] Although Lilly Martin Spencer was essentially self-trained, this is an expertly painted canvas. We have a composition where the figures form a pyramid and our eye is drawn immediately into that central figure of the woman in white. The narrative is very easy to follow, and the way that she's painted the fabrics of the dresses, the aprons, even the trees and the atmospheric perspective that we see in the background, these are things that male artists learned at the academic schools, and here she is learned it on her own. - [Taylor] In fact, she was offered the opportunity to travel with both abroad and to New England to learn with artists it is like Washington Allston. She said, No, I want to stay here in the Midwest. Lilly Martin Spencer had seven children of her own and so she was able to recreate the nuances of young children being cranky or fearful or shy. And I think these are emotions at all people can relate to. - [Beth] And considering this young American democracy, creating an art for the public was such an important ideal. - [Taylor] It's just such a really beautiful expression of her integrating her family life into this work that she hoped to sell. - [Beth] I just so admire her ambition. Apparently, at a very young age she announced to her parents, I'm going to be a painter! and held onto that ideal with such tenacity through 13 children, through a marriage, through the difficulties of finding patrons and buyers in the mid-19th century, it's wonderful to stand here and look at this painting by such a remarkable woman. (bright jazz music)