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A jolly good rendering

Spencer portrait shows warmth, caring for servant

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / May 24, 2011

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HANOVER, N.H. — An extraordinary picture, this. And it really is a picture. Everything about it, like a carefully coordinated joke, smacks of self-consciousness, from the pose of the subject — archly interrupting her work to turn toward the viewer — to the elaborate framing device at the top of the picture, which acts like quotation marks around the whole scene. And then, too, the attention to detail, which is so over-the-top it’s like being regaled with one of those hilariously protracted campfire jokes: It started like this, and then that happened, and that, too; but, oh, where did I put the punch line?

The painting is by Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902). It was painted in 1851, and it hangs in the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. Spencer had 13 children and a husband. Unbelievably, she managed — just — to support them all with her painting.

Evidently, and quite fantastically, she also managed to keep her sense of humor.

“The Jolly Washerwoman,’’ as this picture is called, shows Spencer’s servant doing the washing. It’s safe to say that a man is unlikely to have known or noticed enough to have painted anything like it.

As if wanting to drive the point home, Spencer goes out of her way to get everything down: The clothes washed in the basin (lights first, followed by the colors with dyes that might run). The crumpled clothes yet to be washed. Suds bucket. Washboard. Clothespins for drying.

This is how it works, we feel Spencer saying. Look how it’s done. Women’s work.

Compared with, for instance, Degas’s moodier yet coolly detached laundresses, painted a few decades later, Spencer’s work is almost like a how-to-diagram.

But it’s hardly artless. Spencer could paint. Note the thin sheen of sweat on the woman’s arms, her wet, ruddy, muscular hands, and the superb rendering of all the different fabrics, both wet and dry, as well as the various textures and sheens of all the woods and metals on display. That pile of folded wet clothes in the tub is a tour-de-force.

But of course, the most striking thing about the whole painting is the jolly washerwoman’s really quite sensationally jolly face. Her teeth are yellow, her smile reveals an uncomfortable amount of gum, and she has a double chin. But how warm and unguarded her expression is!

I love those little wrinkles between her nose and her eyes — the wrinkles that transform a cat’s face when it snarls — and her eyes watering with mirth. The whole effect is not beautiful. It’s something better.

Academics tend to swoop down on paintings like this (not surprisingly: They are rare) and spin out elaborate theses about domestic drudgery and female oppression. But what draws my attention is Spencer’s unmistakable warmth toward her subject.

I know she wanted us to see what hard work washing clothes was. But that’s something I could just as easily, and perhaps more convincingly, learn about in a book. What I think Spencer wanted even more to show us is how much she liked this jolly washerwoman. And perhaps even how much she, Spencer — a mother of 13 who, against all the odds, managed to carve out a viable career doing something she had a real talent for — was liked in return.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

THE JOLLY WASHERWOMAN

Lilly Martin Spencer

At: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H. 603-646-2808, www.hood museum.dartmouth.edu