Advanced Search

Study for "Peeling Onions"

Not on view

Study for "Peeling Onions"

Artist: Lilly Martin Spencer (American, 1822 - 1902)

Date: 1848-1852
Medium: Graphite and charcoal on prepared, gray-colored, medium-weight wove paper
Overall: 15 3/8 x 19 7/16in. (39.1 x 49.4cm)
Inscribed: Recto, lower center (charcoal): "Peeling Onions" Verso, lower left (graphite): "9036A" Lower corner (graphite): "AP6 / 477 / 32"
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 69.187
Text Entries

This drawing is a preliminary study for Spencer’s painting of c. 1852 in the collection of the Memorial Art

Gallery, Rochester, N.Y.(1) The paper’s color and dimensions indicate that it was originally part of what has been called the Alas, Poor Yorick sketchbook (now disassembled), which Spencer used when she moved to New York City in 1848.(2) An early biographer noted that shortly thereafter she attended the National Academy of Designs antique school to improve her drawing skills.(3) Although the sketchbooks eponymous drawing shows the results of that effort, the poorly drawn hands and right arm of the figure in the MWPI sheet suggest that Spencer may have made this drawing earlier in her career in Cincinnati, or in New York City before she studied at the Academy.(4) The drawings subject matter anticipates the humorous kitchen scenes Spencer painted in the early 1850s.(5)

Spencer frequently sketched her ideas on paper before making a painting. If the detailed preparatory drawing she made for the painting, “Fi! Fo! Fum!”(6) accurately reflects her working procedure, Spencer may have made at least one other preparatory drawing, now lost, that more closely resembled the design of the Rochester painting. This seems plausible because the MWPI sheet differs from the finished painting in several significant ways: the drawing is oval in format and oriented horizontally, it has fewer and less competently rendered still life elements, and it depicts a younger woman who is dressed more humbly than the one in the painting.(7)


1. See Bolton-Smith and Truettner, Spencer, 38, 160.

2. Bolton-Smith and Truettner, Spencer, 32, 110-11, 122. The ragged left edge of the Utica sheet indicates how it was bound in the Alas, Poor Yorick sketchbook. Traces of an undocumented drawing can be seen on the recto on the MWPI sheet; it is oriented lengthwise and depicts a full-length figure with folded arms. There is a similarly posed figure in Bolton-Smith and Truettner, Spencer, 107, fig. 64.

3. Elizabeth E Ellet, Women Artists in All Ages and Countries (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1859), 323. Spencer’s name does not appear in the list of students enrolled in the academy’s antique school for the years 1848-49 and 1851-52, nor in the life school for 1847-49 and 1851-53. I am grateful to David B. Dearinger, associate curator of paintings and sculpture at the National Academy of Design, who looked for Spencer’s name in the unpublished “National Academy of Design School Register.”

4. Bolton-Smith and Truettner, Spencer, 110-11.

5. Two of the most well-known kitchen paintings are Shake Hands? (Ohio Historical Center, Columbus), and Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the ‘Lasses (The Brooklyn Museum). The theme of a woman cutting onions was reused by Spencer in another painting of c. 1856, The Young Wife: First Stew (location unknown). A small oil study for this painting was published in Elizabeth Johns, American Genre Painting: The Politics of Everyday Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), fig. 45. See also Bolton- Smith and Truettner, Spencer, 174-75. According to Ellet (Women Artists, 324), Spencer reluctantly recycled the themes of her kitchen paintings for economic reasons.

6. In 1973 this painting was in the Betz collection, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. See Bolton-Smith and Truettner, Spencer, 135-36.

7. For the implications of the tendency Spencer had in her later work to move away from representations of the servant class see Helen S. Langa, “Lilly Martin Spencer: Genre, Aesthetics, and Gender in the Work of a Mid-Nineteenth Century American Woman Artist,” Athanor (Florida State University) 9 (1990): 37-45. That the tears in Peeling Onions may suggest a difficult domestic situation see David Lubin, “Lilly Martin Spencer’s Domestic Genre Painting in Antebellum America,” in American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature, ed. David C. Miller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 135-62.


No known copyright restrictions.