Three women playing music by Lillia Cabot Perry

Lilla Cabot Perry: Overlooked American Impressionist

Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933) was an American Impressionist painter and poet. After the emergence of Impressionism as an artistic style in France in the 1860s, major exhibitions of French Impressionist works in Boston and New York in the 1880s introduced the style to the American public. Perry became an early champion of the French Impressionists and contributed to turning their controversial reception in the United States favorable. She wrote and lectured about their work and encouraged American collectors to buy it. Yet as a painter herself and unlike her contemporary, the American expatriate Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Lilla Cabot Perry remains largely unknown, mostly excluded from discussions of American Impressionists in art history textbooks. The following is a brief overview of Perry’s life and work to shed light on her place in the American Impressionist movement.

Self Portrait Lilla Cabot Perry
Lilla Cabot Perry, Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, ca. 1889-1896. Image courtesy of the Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

Lydia (Lilla) Cabot was born January 13, 1848, in Boston, Massachusetts, the eldest of the eight children of Hannah Lowell Jackson Cabot and Dr. Samuel Cabot III, a distinguished surgeon. The family was prominent in Boston society. Friends included such luminaries as the novelist Louisa May Alcott, the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the poet James Russell Lowell. After the Civil War, Cabot moved with her family to a farm in Canton, Massachusetts, where her interest in nature and landscape was shaped. Growing up, she studied literature, languages, poetry, and music and had informal sketching sessions with friends. She also studied great paintings in person while traveling through Europe with her parents in 1867.

Her Portrait Subjects | Her Daughters

In 1874, Cabot married Thomas Sargeant Perry, a linguist and professor of 18th century English literature at Harvard and moved to Boston. The couple soon had three daughters: Margaret (1876), Edith (1880), and Alice (1884), who became frequent portrait subjects throughout Perry’s career. Portraits of her daughters included those of them holding cats, such as Edith with Lierre (1895), playing musical instruments, and eventually posing with their own children, Perry’s grandchildren.

Lillia Cabot Perry's daughter Edith holding her pet cat
Edith with Lierre, Lilla Cabot Perry, 1895. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Wiki Art.

Formal Art Education

It was not until 1884 though that Perry began formal artistic training in Boston with the portrait painter Alfred Quin Collins, who had studied at the Académie Julian, a private art school for painting and sculpture in Paris that remained open until 1968. After her father’s death in 1885, she was able to use her inheritance to pursue art more fully. The family moved to Paris in 1887 and she enrolled in the Académie Colarossi. By 1894, her works had gained international interest and she had exhibitions in both Boston and Paris.

Her Inspiration

In addition to her academic training, Perry spent a great deal of time studying the Old Masters in museums with the renowned art historian Bernard Berenson, a friend of her husband. She also traveled to Spain to copy works at the Museo del Prado. Perry’s 1913 painting, The Crystal Gazer is reminiscent of Johannes Vermeer in its handling of light and shadow, reflecting her exposure to the Old Masters.

Young lady gazing into a crystal
The Crystal Gazer, Lilla Cabot Perry, 1913. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Artnet.

Her life in Giverny

Perry was also greatly influenced by Emerson’s transcendentalist philosophies and her friendship with the painter Claude Monet (1840-1926), whom she met in Paris in 1889. Inspired by Monet, Perry and her family spent nine summers between 1889 and 1909 in Giverny where he lived. Perry’s portrait, Study of Light and Reflection (1891) and the landscape painting, Haystacks, Giverny (1896), the latter painted in the French Impressionist en plein air style, clearly evince the influence of Monet.

Portrait of a child
Study of Light and Reflection, Lilla Cabot Perry, 1891. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the Athenaeum.
Haystacks painted by Lilla Cabot Perry
Haystacks, Giverny, Lilla Cabot Perry, 1896. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Galerii de Arta.

Painting Japan

Perry’s husband accepted a teaching position in Tokyo as an English professor at Keio Gijuku University in 1897, a move which provided Perry with new inspiration. In the three years she resided in Japan with her family, Perry made more than 80 paintings incorporating Eastern subject matter and motifs from Japanese prints. By 1908, the Perry family had returned to Boston permanently, but the eastern influence persisted.  She painted Lady with a Bowl of Violets (1910), which features Japanese artwork on the wall behind the impressionistically rendered sitter displaying Perry’s penchant for soft, ethereal portraits of women.  Other paintings incorporate Japanese wallpaper and screens or the sitters themselves may wear kimonos.

 

Lady with a Bowl of Violets, Lilla Cabot Perry, 1910. Oil on canvas. Image Courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.

Her Other Accomplishments

Perry completed several hundred paintings over her lifetime and was working up until her death at age 85 in 1933. Among other accomplishments, she published three books of poetry–The Heart of the Weed (1887), Impressions: A Book of Verse (1898), and The Jar of Dreams (1923)–and translated the Greek text, From the Garden of Hellas into English in 1891. Throughout her career, Perry was always active in local artistic communities and promoted the Impressionist style wherever she lived. In 1914, she helped found the Guild of Boston Artists to advance accomplished painters and sculptors, serving as a board member and its first secretary. In 1922, she had her first solo exhibition in New York.

The Legacy

Perry’s vocal advocacy of the Impressionist movement paved the way for other American Impressionists like Mary Cassatt to gain the exposure and reception they needed in the United States. She furthered the American careers of her close friends Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro by lecturing stateside on their talents and showcasing their works. Her efforts helped lead to the acceptance of Impressionism as an art form in America. While she did not receive formal training until the age of thirty-six, Perry’s blending of eastern and western aesthetics and her sensitive visions of the feminine and natural worlds offered significant stylistic contributions to both the American and French Impressionist schools. She may be remembered most by keenly observed portraits, mostly of women and many commissioned to help support the family when her inheritance ran out.

 

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Emily Burkhart

Emily Burkhart is an art history graduate from Oakland University. She is passionate about the Michigan art scene, women artists, and women’s inclusion in museum spaces.
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