Niles Spencer was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where his family owned a textile mill. He studied at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence from 1913–15, where by the end of that period he was already teaching evening classes, and spent summer sessions painting with Charles Herbert Woodbury at Hamilton Easter Field’s art school in Ogunquit, Maine. It was in Ogunquit that Spencer met many of the modernists who became lifelong friends, including Marsden Hartley, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Stuart Davis, Bernard Karfiol, Hilaire Hiler, and Louis Bouché, and the author John Dos Passos. In the summer of 1915, Spencer visited New York for the first time, enrolling briefly at the Art Students League as well as at the Ferrer School in the Bronx, where he studied under Robert Henri and George Bellows for just one month. Spencer returned to Providence full of ideas received from Henri and Bellows, and when he tried to spread them in his classes at RISD, he was asked to leave the school. Spencer moved to New York in 1916, and in 1917 he married Betty Lockett. The Spencers removed for the next several years to Ogunquit, making occasional month-long visits to New York.
The Spencers made a fateful trip to Europe in 1921, traveling throughout France and Italy. Already under the sway of Cézanne, in Paris Spencer came into contact with the work of the cubists Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso, which forever changed the course of his art. His early painting City Walls (1921, Museum of Modern Art, New York), is his first documented response to cubism. A flattened and compactly designed grouping of interlocking architectural forms painted in muted colors, City Walls established in one stroke the direction Spencer was to take for the rest of his career. Spencer’s new style allied him with the Precisionists, American modernists of the Machine Age who painted cubist-infused architectural landscapes in a highly controlled technique, in which space is divided into precisely drawn geometric regions of color.
Spencer returned to the United States in 1922, and the following year he settled in New York, near Washington Square. Now firmly entrenched in the city, Spencer began to flourish. Through his friends he was invited to join the Whitney Studio Club, and through the recommendation of the sculptor William Zorach, the influential art dealer Charles Daniel decided to represent Spencer. Daniel gave Spencer two one-man shows, in 1925 and 1928. Though Daniel handled the work of a wide variety of American modernists, including Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, John Marin, and Man Ray, the Daniel Gallery became especially strongly associated with the leading Precisionists Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, and Preston Dickinson. Spencer’s pictures of urban buildings were a natural fit among this group, and he was rightly considered one of them by critics and collectors.
Spencer enjoyed moderate success in his own lifetime. Like the works, the man himself was a modest, understated, and cerebral personality, neither ambitious nor keen to promote himself in the oftentimes cutthroat art world. Spencer received the third and final one-man show of his career in 1947 at the Downtown Gallery, New York, nineteen years after his previous show at the Daniel Gallery. Also in 1947, after a fallow period during which is marriage disintegrated, Spencer divorced his wife, Betty. He married Catherine Brett, the director of a girl’s school in Dingman’s Ferry, Pennsylvania, in November of that same year. This heralded a new period of energy and activity for Spencer. In 1950, he and Catherine moved to Sag Harbor, Long Island, and during these years he divided his time between there and Dingman’s Ferry, frequently stopping over in New York to visit his friends. By late 1950, however, declining health forced him to curtail his shuttling to and from Dingman’s Ferry, and he made his last trip to New York in February 1952. Spencer died in Dingman’s ferry in May of a coronary artery occlusion.
What attention Spencer may have lacked during his life he received immediately upon his death. The Downtown Gallery held two posthumous exhibitions of Spencer’s work in 1952, and in 1954, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, mounted a major exhibition of Spencer’s art that traveled to six venues across the Northeast and Midwest, bringing an enormous amount of attention to his art. Spencer has since been remembered as a major figure in Precisionism as its most subtle and intimate practitioner whose works, although products of the Machine Age, never relinquished the sense of being made by hand.