Lilly Martin Spencer was raised by liberal parents in rural Ohio. With their support, she taught herself to paint at a young age, before moving to Cincinnati at nineteen to seek professional training.
She married and went on to give birth to thirteen children, seven of whom survived infancy. She and her family moved to New York City so she could pursue her career.
Although she was unconventional both in her profession and as the principal breadwinner in her family, Spencer’s domestic subject matter kept her comfortably within the appropriate realm for a woman painter at the time. In an ironic twist, much of the work Spencer painted was conducted by the servants she employed so she could keep up the demands of her painting; the woman in Peeling Onions was the family’s live-in maid.