Sunday, November 6, 2016

1848-1933: Lilla Cabot Perry, American

The Green Hat (self-portrait), 1913 (age 65)

Lilla Cabot Perry was an American Impressionist painter, whose career spanned the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. She specialized in portraits, and most of her famous paintings feature her own daughters, and other family members. Although she embraced and promoted Impressionism, for her society portraits she sometimes used old-fashioned realism. Later in life she painted many Impressionist landscapes.

Although Lilla achieved a solid reputation in her own time, current scholarship on her is sketchy. For instance, Internet sources are few, and they give contradictory dates. And no one seems to have taken a serious look at her work.

After studying the total body of her work, as published online, it seems to me that a feminist interpretation would credit Lilla as being one of the earliest women to use painting to chronicle their children's development, as modern women use cameras on cell phones. Her earliest known painting shows her own daughter in a crib, and she documented the growth of her 3 daughters with many portraits over the years, as well as scenes showing their activities.

Although Lilla was very talented, her career and reputation were limited by the fact that she evidently put family before art. She didn't even receive formal training until she was 36, just after her third daughter was born. She began to get some recognition by the time she was 41, but she never really pushed her career with full commitment. For instance, just as her reputation was building in Europe and Boston, she moved to Japan with her husband because he got a teaching position there. When they returned to Boston, she put more energy into her career—producing portraits of several important society figures—but she was also active in numerous arts organizations, and became a major promoter of Impressionism in the U.S. As a sideline, she published four volumes of verse that were well-received.

Lilla was a the eldest of eight children of a socially prominent family in Boston, with strong literary connections. Her father was a distinguished surgeon, and all the men in the Cabot family had celebrated accomplishments.

As a young person, she received private instruction in literature, languages, music, and sketching. When she was 19, she traveled with her parents to Europe, where she studied painting.

When she was 26, she married Thomas Sergeant Perry, who was descended from Commodore Perry, the explorer. Thomas taught language and literature at Harvard; he was known as the best read man in Boston. Over the next ten years Lilla raised three daughters (Margaret, Edith, and Alice) while making her home an intellectual salon for artists and writers in Boston.

The most interesting fact about Lilla's career is that she didn't begin to get formal art training until she was 36, in 1884—the year her third daughter was born—when she began studying at a fine art school in Boston. The following year,  her father died, leaving her an inheritance that allowed her to get private lessons with well-known artists.

Both Lilla and Thomas had travelled and studied in Europe before they were married. Thomas's life as an academic gave him the opportunity to return, and that suited Lilla's desire to study art. In 1887, Lilla and Thomas and their 3 daughters moved to Paris, and they lived in France for several years. Lilla enrolled in an art academy, and studied the old masters in museums. They also traveled to Spain and Germany to continue their studies.

Lilla's career as an artist first got started in France in 1889 when she had two paintings accepted by the Society of Independent Artists (the organization for artists whose work didn't fit the standards of the official Paris Salon); she was 41.

In that same year, she discovered Impressionism, and that caused a major change in her style. Awed by the first painting she saw by Monet, she sought him out and the two became friends. Lilla seems to have fit right into his circle, becoming friends with Mary Cassatt and Camille Pissarro as well. The Perrys spent 9 summers between 1889-1909 in Giverny, close to Monet's home and famous garden. Monet did not take students, but he would offer Lilla advice on an informal basis. During this time Lilla's work became clearly Impressionist in style.

In 1891, the Perry family moved back to Boston, and Lilla's work began to win honors in regional shows. Lilla also became a strong promoter of Impressionism, and even organized an exhibit of Monet's work. By 1897, Lilla had achieved international acclaim.

In 1897, Thomas received a teaching position as a English professor in Japan. While this interrupted her career momentum in the U.S., it gave Lilla a chance to study Japanese art, an important inspiration for Impressionism. She made more than 80 paintings in Japan, including 35 depicting Mount Fuji. She developed a style that brought together Eastern and Western traditions.

Lilla was 51 in 1901 when the Perrys returned to the Boston area. Her painting was an important source of income to the family, so she began to focus on portraits, and she got a number of important commissions over the next 20 years. She was also an active member of the painting community.

In her 70s, during a period when she had health problems, Lilla returned to painting landscapes, specializing in snow scenes. She also published 4 books of poetry and a book of reminiscences about her friendship with Monet.

Thomas died at the age of 83 in 1928. Lilla was 80. She continued to paint prolifically until her death at the age of 85.

Our photos of Lilla's work:

Portrait Study of a Child, 1891
Nelson-Atkins / Jan's photo, 2010

Angela, 1891
High / Jan's photo, 2010

A Stream Beneath Poplars, c. 1900
Hunter / Jan's photo, 2010

Lady with a Bowl of Violets, c. 1910 (age 62)
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Internet examples:

The painting below is one of the two paintings first accepted by the prestigious Paris Salon.

Thomas Sergeant Perry, 1889

La Petite Angele, II, 1889
Private Collection / Internet

Open Air Concert, 1890

Study of Light and Reflection, 1890
private collection /

Study of Light and Reflection, 1890
private collection /

Haystacks, Giverny, 1896
private collection /

Cliffs at Etretat, undated

Giverny Landscape, in Monet's Garden, c. 1897
private collection /

In a Japanese Garden, c. 1901
private collection /

Below are Lilla's 3 daughters. It was painted while they were living in Japan.

The Trio (Alice, Edith and Margaret Perry), 1901

Alice in a White Hat, 1904

The Pink Rose, 1910
The portrait below shows a famous novelist and critic. He wrote The Rise of Silas Lapham.

William Dean Howells, 1912 (artist age 64)
private collection /

The Poppy Screen, 1915

Lilla was about 73 when she painted the work below in the old-fashioned realist style. It was probably a commissioned portrait that she gave a more generalized title.

The Story Hour, 1921
private collection /

Thomas Sergeant Perry Reading a Newspaper, 1924
private collection /

Lilla painted the work below the year of Thomas's death. She was 80.

Early Morning Winter, 1928
14 in by 18 in