19TH CENTURY ART
SCRIPT – KISS ME AND YOU’LL KISS THE ‘LASSES
Lily Martin Spencer was an enormously popular artist in the mid-nineteenth century because of her genre paintings, paintings that show realistic scenes from everyday life. Especially domestic scenes of women, like this scene.
SFX: QUIET INDOOR AMBIENCE, BIRDS OUTSIDE, WOMAN HUMS TO HERSELF WHILE AT WORK...WOODEN SPOON TAPS BOWL
Summertime, 1856. Fruits are at their ripest...and as we peek into the home of a young woman, she’s busy at work putting up fruit, preserving it for the winter months. The floor of the room has a carpet of white and red flowers. She wears an ankle-length dress, dark green, with short sleeves. The neckline of the dress shows a white ruffle. A pink apron tied at the waist covers the front of her dress. She has brown hair, pulled back into a bun at the back of her head.
She’s standing, at a table whose white tablecloth has been pulled to the right edge, so that she can work on the wooden tabletop without dirtying the tablecloth.
She’s standing in the center of the room with her body facing right, but her head is turned, looking straight at us with a playful smile on her face. Her look is teasing, even suggestive, probably because she’s talking to a man. And what has she just said?
WOMAN: Kiss me and you’ll kiss the ‘lasses!
The word ‘Lasses is short for molasses. It’s a moment of playful flirtation, for if the man she’s addressing tries to kiss her, she’ll give him a dousing of molasses from a wooden spoon she holds.
ALL SOUNDS FADE OUT
And that is the title of Lily Martin Spencer’s painting...Kiss me and you’ll kiss the ‘lasses.
Now here’s the rest of the verbal description of the painting.
It’s a small oil painting, only 29 inches high and 21 inches wide.
On the right of the painting, the table she stands at is piled with various fruits. There’s a bowl filled to the brim with dark red raspberries. Behind the bowl a basket overflows with pale yellow cherries tinged with light red. Next to the basket is a glass dish filled with round green fruit, possibly grapes. In the foreground in front of the table, a chair holds more fruit; a metal basin filled with green apples or pears, and the brown outer skin of two pineapples.
Also on the table is a glass pitcher with brown fluid in it, possibly honey, and a bowl of molasses from which she’s just raised a large wooden spoon with her left hand. Her right hand holds a knife and rests on the rim of a dark green bowl on the table. Just behind her on the floor is a large woven basket overflowing with large green leaves and bunches of tiny red berries.
All the fruit and other objects on the table fill the right foreground of the painting with color. In contrast, the left side of the painting appears empty. But in reality it helps to balance the composition. Here’s what on the left side.
In the background a tall wooden door stands fully open, inviting us to look deep into the next room of the house. It’s a darker room, but we can make out a round table with a red tablecloth. On the table is a small vase of flowers and a glass dish. We can also see part of a chair with a red seat cover, a large round portrait handing on the far wall, the top of a couch below the portrait, and a dark green carpet that has a red pattern of flowers.
As we look at the painting, we may occasionally look through the open door into the dimness of the empty room in the left background, but we quickly move back to the color and activity of the right foreground. The woman standing in the center divides the two areas of the composition.
In her paintings, Spencer was doing more than creating humorous and sentimental images of domestic labor. On the one hand, the woman in this painting is preparing food for her family, appropriate behavior for a proper Victorian woman. But on the other hand, she behaves with unconventional boldness. Spencer’s paintings reflected the growing tension between women’s traditional roles and the demands women were making for greater individual freedom outside the home and for social changes within the home itself.
Spencer had similar contradictions in her own life. Her paintings brought her fame as one of the few professional female artists of her day. But she was torn between her responsibilities of being a mother, and being a professional artist in an art world that assumed women could not be great painters.