There are many different definitions and ideas about what makes a family, and also many opinions about what doesn’t make a family. The definition about family is a concept that can have various meanings. The definition of family to some may be described as being in love, providing security, nourishment or socialization and to others family may mean something completely different. With these being only examples of what some may consider being family, come many more ideas of what family may really mean. Family is an important topic in the lives of many. In the painting titled Domestic Happiness, by Lilly Martin Spencer, she brings out a very warm, heart-felt sensation of what it means to be a family and what the family is like.
The painting Domestic Happiness is of a mother and a father watching their two children sleep. We can tell how happy the couple is by the delicate smiles on their faces. They also have a very intense look of care in their eyes as they look at nothing else but their children. You can see that they are a very happy family. The mother and father are intimately close to one another as you can see in the painting as they stand so near to one another. This is a feminine scene where the man and woman share the same feelings, which is a very progressive idea considering the artistic view at the time of the nineteenth century in which men were rarely portrayed in their paternal aspect and in such an intimate manner.
We also notice that the background colors are the darkest around the father. This makes us think that maybe the father is not always bringing happiness into the family contradicting the initial appearance of such a happy family. The very colorful and very busy pattern on the father’s clothing suggests that he has many different roles to play in his life. He is not just one simple man. He has many different jobs and perhaps his life is so busy that he does not always get this special time alone with his family. This could be the reason that brings darkness around him because he is hardly around for the family as a father but rather he is out working to support and provide for the family. Perhaps the fact that the clothing the children are wearing is only on the left appendages of the children it is suggesting that the left side is the main system for support.
If we take a look at the painting and consider the suggestion that the left side is the form of support and look at what is on the left side of the painting, we see the father. Perhaps this further supports the theory that the father is always out working to provide for his family. Perchance, this painting is telling us the primary means of support for the family, as suggested by the pattern on his clothing as well, is the father. Even though he may hardly be around and is always busy, perhaps it is because he is simply trying to make the best for his family by working so hard to support and provide for them so that they can live a happy life as the painting portrays. The mother, as we can see in the painting, is as if she is holding the father back from perhaps wanting to hold or touch the children or even speak to them.
As a viewer looks at a painting, they focus on what it brought out by the brightest colors or what is stands out the most. You can see that throughout the painting the focus is on the children that are lying down. This focus on the children can be seen because the background is very dark, whereas the bright colors are located around and on the children. The whites and pale skin tones draw in our eyes to focus on the two infants. Another way we can tell that the focus is on the two infants is because the parents’ eyes are directly on them as they stare intently at what they have created. The dark colors surrounding the children bring them out even more. Spencer is focusing on the children because they are such a fresh form of life. The children are very young and still have a future ahead of them. At the time that the painting was created in the nineteenth century, the infant mortality rate was very high (Johns 270). The fact that her two children beat death and are living could be the reason that she shows such a great expression of love and care. After looking at the focal point, it is noticed that the children are not covered by the blanket that lies right beneath them.
This could be because the parents have just laid them down and were taking in every aspect about the moment with their children before covering them up since they do not get these moments very often since the father lives to many roles to provide for the family. We also notice since the focal point is on the children that the articles of clothing that the children are wearing seem to be a bit unusual. The clothing on the younger child seems to be representing a toga. The clothing is very loose-fitting on the child. The clothing seems translucent in color and is seen to come across only one shoulder: the left shoulder. On the older child we can notice that she is wearing a sort of dress and it is covering only one of the child’s legs: the left leg and is also very loose-fitted. The children may also simply be wearing clothes that are too big or as explained by Elizabeth Johns they are adult clothes. “Spencer used detailed scenes from her daily life such as her children dressing up in adult clothes” (Johns, 289). An example of another painting by Spencer that shows a child in rather large clothing or adult clothes can be seen in her painting titled This Little Piggy Went to Market. In this painting the garment of clothing in also hanging off the child’s shoulders and is the same translucent-like color.
The item of clothing resembles a lot of what we see in Domestic Happiness. The fact that her children dressed up in adult clothes could be the reason as to why the children’s clothes looked as if they were togas. They were so big on them that they were falling off their shoulders. As we look more closely as the items of clothing to see if in fact they are wearing adult clothing, we see that the clothing must be the mothers. It could be the undergarment of what the mother wears beneath her dress. We can assume that it is not the fathers because it looks as if the item of clothing is an undergarment and men did not wear undergarments such as the children seem to be wearing. Also, the fact that the children enjoyed to dress up in adult clothes tells us that they wanted to be like their parents. The mother intends to be a good role model for her children as seen by the care she has for them in her facial emotion.
The toddler could also have just been laid down as suggested by the blanket as well which could be why the garment covers only one of the toddler’s leg. Also take interest in the position that the toddler is in. Spencer could be suggesting that the children are intertwined. The infants are intertwined in the love of their parents. Their position in the painting is a symbol of how involved the family is with each other. As David Miller states in his book, “just as children would learn affection from their parents, the parents would learn affection, or be reawakened to it, by their children” (Miller, 140). We can see by looking at this painting that the children are learning from their parents’ affection. We can also make from the previous quote that the parents are learning their affection from their own children in the scene in the painting.
As the children lie down wrapped in each other’s arms, the parents are learning from intimacy the children show. It is as if this is a circular action. The children see their parents and learn affection from them. We know that the children learn from the parents because who else would they as children learn from? The children show each other affection that they initially learn from their mother and father whereas the parents then observe and learn from the children. The parents “reawaken” their feelings for each other by seeing the affection brought out by their children and knowing that they learned it from them. It goes back and forth between the children and the parents. All of the affection seen in the painting tells us that there is plenty of domestic happiness here.
By simply looking at the painting, all one will see is a happy family but we need to dig deeper and find the meaning behind what is going on. By doing this it shows that Spencer is supporting the traditional, conservative role of the woman in the family. The hand of the mother reaches up to her husband to quiet his own gestures toward the two children. The fact that her hand is backwards with her palm facing outward is a way of bringing the focus to the children as well. The mother is the one that is mainly in charge of the children when the father is out. We see this in the painting by the way the mother is holding her hand to the father. The hand of the mother reaches up to her husband to quiet his own gestures toward the two children. Her hand suggests that she has supremacy in the family by the way it is placed. Spencer is taking a position in saying that the children should be led, taught, governed; they should not be the ones directing and governing. In this case the mother is taking a stand and doing just that for her children. The painting is a harmonious scene and everything compliments each other. It is comprehensive in that it is actually giving a message in favor of the harmony of the family and the family as a strategy against conflict in society, but the message is given in images, not words. The sentimental message is the devotion of mothers to their children. Spencer celebrates familial love by representing a father and mother gazing down lovingly at their baby and toddler asleep on a bed, arms intertwined.
Generally one must dig deeper and notice the little things to provide more of the story of what is going on in a painting. By digging deeper in the painting we find that the relationship the parents have is just as any other family relationship was back then. The mother takes care of the children and housework while the father works and supplies his family with food and a home. We also found out that the main support system in the family is the father as suggested by the clothing of the children. Lastly we found out the mother is very much in charge of the children as she suggests that the children should be governed. The painting gives us a message but we as the viewer must take in everything about the painting and find it ourselves.
Johns, Elizabeth. American Genre Painting: The Politics of Everyday Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Miller, David C. American Iconology: new approaches to nineteenth-century art and literature. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Vigue, Jordi. Great Women Masters of Art. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2002.