Lilla Cabot Perry (American painter) 1848 - 1933
Lilla Cabot Perry was an American artist who worked in the Impressionist style, rendering portraits and landscapes in the free form manner of her mentor, Claude Monet. Perry was an early advocate of the French Impressionist style and contributed to its reception in the United States. Perry's early work was shaped by her exposure to the Boston school of artists and her travels in Europe and Japan. She was also greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophies and her friendship with Camille Pissarro. Although it was not until the age of thirty-six that Perry received formal training, her work with artists of the Impressionist, Realist, Symbolist, and German Social Realist movements greatly affected the style of her oeuvre. Lilla Cabot was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father was Dr. Samuel Cabot III, a distinguished surgeon. Her mother was Hannah Lowell Jackson Cabot. She had seven siblings: three being, Samuel Cabot IV (b. 1850), chemist and founder of Valspar's Cabot Stains, Dr. Arthur Tracy Cabot (b. 1852), a progressive surgeon, and Godfrey Lowell Cabot (b. 1861), founder of Cabot Corporation. Perry studied literature, language, poetry, and music. There are a few references to Perry having informal sketching sessions with her friends however she had no formal training in the arts before 1884. As a child she additionally enjoyed reading books and playing sports outdoors. Because of her family’s prominence in Boston society, Perry had access from an early age to such literary greats as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and James Russell Lowell. Perry recalled having the opportunity to play the game “fox and geese” with both Emerson and Alcott. Perry was thirteen years old when the Civil War began. Her parents were ardent abolitionists and took an active role in the war effort by providing care to wounded soldiers and helping to protect runaway slaves. At seventeen, when the Civil War ended, Perry moved with her family to a farm in Canton, Massachusetts where much of her early interests in landscapes and nature was shaped. In 1874, she married Thomas Sergeant Perry, a Harvard alumnus scholar and linguist, and added his name. She completed what is considered to be her earliest known painting, Portrait of an Infant (Margaret Perry) dating from 1877–78. This work draws on the inspiration that would occupy much of her artwork throughout her career – her children. Perry had three children, Margaret (1876), Edith (1880), and Alice (1884). In 1884 Perry began her formal artistic training with the portrait painter Alfred Quinton Collins. Collins had studied at the Académie Julian in Paris under the guidance of Leon Bonnat. Bonnat’s other students included Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Walter Gay, and Frederic Vinton. Perry’s The Beginner, ca. 1885–86, represents the first work she completed under formal guidance. The Beginner echoes Collins’ influences with the sitter’s serious gaze, dark background, and emphasis on dramatic lighting. While Perry learned the more formal aspects of art-making with Collins, it was not until 1885 that she finally found an artist who truly inspired her personal style. In that year Perry worked with Robert Vonnoh, an artist who worked in the Impressionist’s plein-air style at Grez-Sur-Loing in France. Vonnoh’s work represented a distinct departure from the formal style Perry had been exposed to and it was this experience that planted the seeds for Perry’s lifelong dedication to Impressionism. The year 1885 was significant in the development of Perry’s personal artistic style. In addition to her exposure to Vonnoh’s unorthodox artistic style, during that same year she also took classes with instructor Dennis Bunker at the prestigious Cowles Art School in Boston. Cowles taught its students “liberal theories” in the creation of realist art – theories that Perry greatly responded to. In 1887, upon arriving in France, Perry enrolled in the Académie Colarossi where she worked with Gustave Courtois and Joseph Blanc. She also studied with Felix Borchardt, a German painter. In addition to receiving formal academic training, Perry spent much of her time studying the old masters at the Louvre in Paris. She also traveled to Spain to copy works at the Prado. Perry’s The Red Hat from 1888 strongly reflects the formal training she had received and her exposure to the old masters, especially the work of Botticelli. In 1888 Perry traveled to Munich where she studied with the German social realist Fritz von Uhde. Uhde’s handling of the subject and his use of color had a dynamic effect on Perry’s work. By the fall of 1888 Perry had returned to Paris where she enrolled in the Académie Julian and studied with Tony Robert-Fleury. With the encouragement of Walter Gay, Perry submitted two paintings she had recently completed to the Société des Artistes Indépendants. The portraits of her husband Thomas Sergeant Perry (1889) and of her daughter Edith Perry holding a book (1889) were accepted by the Salon and with this accomplishment Perry’s career took hold in France. Perry’s success in 1889 made it possible for her to be one of the select few admitted to Alfred Stevens’ class in Paris. Stevens was known for his “elegant interiors featuring genteel ladies lost in their reveries”. Much of Perry’s oeuvre was influenced by the time she spent with Stevens. The Letter [Alice Perry] (1893) clearly reveals Stevens’ influence with Perry’s elegant handling of the turned details of the chair, the careful attention paid to the coloration of the wood, and the tactile reality she imbued her daughter’s garment with – every pleat of the dress evokes its three-dimensional fullness. All of this combined with Perry’s careful handling of Alice’s face creates an emotional, introspective composition. It was also in 1889 that Perry first encountered Claude Monet’s work in Georges Petit’s gallery. Viewing Monet’s work was a revelation in her career as an artist. It was on that day that Perry decided to move her residence to Giverny, where Monet lived, in order to further expose herself to the Impressionist’s style. Between 1889 and 1909 Perry spent nine summers in Giverny. It was here that she fully found herself as an artist. During her time in Giverny she formed a close friendship with Claude Monet whose impressionistic handling of color and light greatly inspired her work. In addition, she also worked with a cadre of American artists who had found their way to Giverny including Theodore Robinson, John Breck, and Theodore Earl Butler. There is a distinct shift observed in Perry’s work after she arrived in Giverny. Her La Petite Angèle, II (1888) illustrates the dramatic evolution her style during this period. Unlike her earlier portraits, like The Letter, which relied on more traditional techniques to carefully render the subject matter – La Petite Angèle, II is clearly impressionistic in style with its free form brushstrokes that capture the impression of light and color. Rather than blending together each brushstroke, Perry allowed the composition to be “raw”, thus allowing a vibrancy to be imbued in the canvas that was not possible in her earlier works. Giverny and more specifically Claude Monet, inspired Perry to work with plein-air forms, impressionistic brushstrokes, soft colors, and poppy red. In the window of La Petite Angèle, II we see the beginnings of what would become Perry’s love affair with the Impressionist’s handling of the landscape theme. By the fall of 1889 Perry had departed from Giverny to tour Belgium and the Netherlands and by November she had returned to Boston with her family. With her return to the states Perry did not leave behind the charms of Giverny that had provided her with so much inspiration. With her she brought back a painting by Monet in addition to a series of landscapes by John Breck. Collectively, these works would nourish her creative appetite until she could return to Giverny. Perry’s artistic career took on new meaning when she returned to Boston. She was not content to simply paint in the new style she had acquired while overseas. More than this, she was inspired to “foster a new truth in painting” in the Boston art community that was not responsive to the new Impressionist modes. To accomplish her goal of fostering this “new truth” in painting, Perry helped to organize the first public exhibition of Breck landscapes in November, 1890. To further her goal of helping the American audience understand the Impressionist’s style, Perry gave a lecture on Claude Monet on January 24, 1894 at the Boston Art Students Association. In 1893 Perry’s career as an artist achieved a new level of success. It was during this year that Perry was chosen to represent Massachusetts at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. Perry had seven works displayed at the exhibition, of which four of the compositions were worked in the plein-air style (Petite Angèle, I, An Open Air Concert, Reflections, Child in a Window) and three were more formal studio portraits (Portrait of a Child, Child with a Violoncello, Portrait Study of a Child). In 1894 Perry had achieved another success when her Impressionist paintings were exhibited in Boston at the St. Botolph Club with other artists including Edmund C. Tarbell (1862–1938), Phillip Leslie Hale (1865–1931), Theodore Wendel (1859–1932), Frederick Porter Vinton (1846–1911), and Dawson Dawson-Watson. Not only did this exhibition reveal that Perry’s work was being accepted in America, it also proved that Impressionism was finally starting to be accepted as an art form outside of Europe. Between 1894 and 1897, Perry’s work achieved international acclaim. Not only was she able to exhibit her work in Boston, she also regularly exhibited at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts at the Salon de Champ de Mars during this time. The winter of 1897 brought another exhibition for Perry at the St. Botolph Club. Unlike her previous exhibition at the same location, this time Perry was exhibiting her works in a solo show. This exhibit featured the breadth of Perry’s artistic achievements up until this point including Impressionist portraits and landscapes. With her children past their childhood years, Perry could no longer use them as subjects for her compositions. Fortunately, a new inspiration entered her life in 1898 when her husband received a teaching position in Japan. For three years Perry resided in Japan and took full advantage of its unique artistic community. In October 1898 Perry exhibited her work in Tokyo and became an honorary member of the Nippon Bijutsu-In Art Association. Perry’s involvement with the Asian art world greatly influenced her work and made it possible for her to develop a unique style that brought together western and eastern aesthetic traditions. Her Meditation, Child in a Kimono and Young Girl with an Orange vibrantly illustrates the distinct changes that occurred in Perry’s work during her stay in Japan. Unlike her earlier works, both compositions draw on uniquely eastern subject matter and show a strong influence of the clean lines from Japanese prints. The result of this blending of east and west is striking with Impressionist portraits flowing seamlessly with the well-organized, balanced compositions that the eastern art world was known for at this time. By 1901 Perry had returned to Boston and in 1904 her Portrait of Mrs. Joseph Clark Grew [Alice Perry] won a bronze medal at the prestigious International Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis. The upcoming years would prove to be difficult for Perry’s personal life. In 1905 she returned to France and by the winter of the same year, her health had collapsed. Frequent moves combined with the financial strain of constantly needing to do portraits in order to make up for the money that her family was losing in investments had taken a huge toll on Perry. By 1908 Perry had regained her health and had six of her paintings exhibited in Paris at the Salon des Indépendents, including Dans un Bateau and Le Paravent Jaune. In November 1909 Perry returned to America with a newfound inspiration for her work. The following year she demonstrated her renewed enthusiasm for her art by creating a rare urban view for her oeuvre, The State House, Boston (1910). Another solo exhibition followed in 1911 at the Copley Gallery featuring her Lady with a Bowl of Violets (1910) and by 1915, Perry had received yet another bronze medal at the prestigious Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, California. Throughout her career as an artist, Perry was deeply engaged in the artistic communities of whatever town she lived in and actively promoted Impressionism’s style. The passage of time did not cause Perry’s passions to wane. In 1913, Perry helped to form the ultra-conservative Guild of Boston Artists in order to oppose the art world’s avant-garde trends. Perry was dissatisfied by the “modern art" that was taking hold. In 1920 Perry received a commemoration for giving six years of loyal service to the Guild. The year 1922 marks the first time Perry’s work was featured in a solo exhibition in New York at the Braus Gallery on Madison Avenue. Forty-four of her paintings were showcased including landscapes from Giverny and Japan. By 1923 Perry’s personal life had taken another turn for the worse. She became critically ill with diphtheria while her daughter Edith had a complete mental health collapse and was sent to a private mental health institution in Wellesley. Perry spent the next two years in convalescence in Charleston, South Carolina. During this time she found new inspiration for her landscape theme and executed works such as Road from Charleston to Savannah and A Field, Late Afternoon, Charleston, South Carolina. It was also during her time in Charleston that Perry found a new theme for her landscapes, what she referred to as “snowscapes.” These landscapes laden with snow became a passion for Perry who bundled herself up in blankets and hot water bottles in order to capture the beauty of a 4 a.m. sunrise. Two examples of her “snowscapes” include A Snowy Monday (1926) and After First Snow (1926). In 1927 there were two solo exhibitions of Perry’s work – in January at The Guild Show in Washington, D.C. and in February at the Gordon Dunthorne Gallery. The following year, on May 27, 1928 Thomas Sergeant Perry died after having been sick with pneumonia. After a period of mourning, Perry again allowed her work to be exhibited at the Guild of Boston Artists – the organization she helped to establish – in 1929 and then again in 1931. Many of her landscapes were showcased in the exhibition including Autumn Leaves (1926), Lakeside Reflections (1929–1931), and Snow, Ice, Mist (1929). Perry began her career capturing the likenesses of her children in startling reality using the elegance and fluidity of form she had observed in the works of the old masters. By the end of her career, Perry’s work had undergone a complete transformation and expanded to include not only formal portraits, but also portraits rendered in the Impressionist style and landscapes that were uniquely inspired by her time with Monet at Giverny. Lilla Cabot Perry died on February 28, 1933. From her organization of the first American exhibition of Impressionist landscapes by John Breck to her visions of late nineteenth and early twentieth century femininity, Lilla Cabot Perry's legacy is dynamic. During her lifetime she lived in three continents and was exposed to dozens of artists and stylistic modes. Her 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. No matter what Perry was exposed to, she always returned to her home and family for inspiration – not because that was all that was available to her, but because it was the part of her life that mattered to her most. Her translation of such dynamic styles into her intimate, everyday world created an oeuvre of art that provides intensely personal reflections on this Boston native's life. Her vocal advocacy for the Impressionist movement helped to make it possible for other American Impressionists like Mary Cassatt to gain the exposure and acceptance they needed in the states. She furthered the American careers of her close friends Claude Monet and John Breck by lecturing stateside on their talents and showcasing their works. She also worked closely with Camille Pissarro to assist him in his dire financial situation by selling his work to friends and family in America. Throughout her life, Perry demonstrated again and again that she was dedicated and devoted not only to her own artistic evolution and career, but also to the careers of those around her. Thanks to her efforts, the Guild of Boston Artists was founded, Impressionism took hold as a respected artistic style in the United States, and a new generation of women artists were able to stake their claim in the art world thanks to the path that Lilla Cabot Perry blazed for them. More than an artist, Perry was an advocate for the things that mattered to her most.