Painter. The most successful woman painter of the mid-nineteenth century, she is known for domestic genre scenes. Her engrossingly detailed and brightly colored images usually focus on the lives of women and children. Nearly always cheerful and sometimes gently humorous, they nevertheless offer nuanced responses to complexities of nineteenth-century gender politics and family relations. Most reflect mid-century notions idealizing woman's virtue. They emphasize the mother's role in providing for her family a safe and happy home ruled by Christian values, a point of view that reflected liberal thinking in the 1840s but later hardened into dogma. At the same time, some of Spencer's work responds, if only obliquely, to voices of early feminists (such as her own mother). Occasionally, she strikes an ironic note, at least for the viewer predisposed to observe it. Concurrently, Spencer also painted romantic scenes inspired by literature or history. Her broader interests suggest that the focus on domestic genre during the years when her work was most popular reflects expectations of critics and patrons for a woman artist. The development of her reputation profited from the American Art-Union's sponsorship, and she found a wide audience for prints of her work.
Born Angélique Marie Martin to French parents in Exeter, England, she emigrated with her family to New York in 1830, but after three years they moved to Marietta, Ohio. In Cincinnati during the early 1840s she benefited from James Henry Beard's assistance and encouragement. Declining Nicholas Longworth's offer to finance art studies elsewhere, she remained essentially self-taught and never thoroughly mastered figure drawing or perspective. (Recognizing her deficiency even after she had attained success, she later attended evening classes at the National Academy of Design.) In 1844 she married Englishman Benjamin Rush Spencer, and they decamped for New York four years later. The Spencers probably had thirteen children (records are unclear), with seven surviving to maturity. The artist not only tended her brood but also acted as the family's primary breadwinner. (Her husband served as her business manager and helped out in the studio. Although he was sometimes listed in city directories as a painter, no independent works have been located.) In 1858 the family moved to Newark, New Jersey, and in 1879 to Highland, New York, on the Hudson River. In 1900, following her husband's death ten years earlier, she returned permanently to New York City. One of Spencer's most widely popular images, Shake Hands? (Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, 1854) suggests her ability to manipulate unstable meanings. A broadly smiling, confident woman works in a well-stocked kitchen elaborated with numerous still life vignettes of food and utensils. To the viewer she extends her flour-dusted right hand in an offer of acquaintance. While apparently delighted with her conventional domestic duties, she also radiates a sense of healthy self-reliance and competence. Moreover, the proffered hand itself signals her independence, for the handshake remained at this time primarily a male gesture related to the affirmation of equality. As the market for genre in general declined in the late 1850s, Spencer's art began to go out of fashion. Following the cost-cutting move across the Hudson River, she was reduced for several years to making a living by coloring photographs and drawing ladies' magazine illustrations. After the Civil War she responded to changing taste by enlarging her repertoire of subjects to include allegory, portraits, miniatures, and still lifes. Her technique broadened in the 1880s, as she tried to accommodate fashionable styles, but she never recovered preeminence as a popular interpreter of middle-class urban family life. Nevertheless, she continued painting until the last day of her life.