An Appreciation: Lilla Cabot Perry
Lila Cabot Perry was an American Impressionist whose art was recognized during her lifetime. In addition, she played a major role in promoting and popularizing Impressionism in the United States.
Born Lilla Cabot on January 13, 1848, Lilla was part of Boston's most elite family. As in the old rhyme, Boston was where “the Lowells speak only to the Cabots and the Cabots speak only to God.” As a result, growing up, Lilla had access to the leading intellectuals of New England such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott. In addition, because her father, the surgeon Dr. Samuel Cabot III, was a proprietor of the Boston Athenium, Lilla had access to its fine library.
In 1874, Lilla married Thomas Sergeant Perry, a professor of 18th century literature at Harvard University, who was known as the most well-read man in New England. The brother-in-law of the painter John Lafarge, Perry was also a grand-nephew of Commodore Mathew Perry who not too long before had opened Japan to trade with the outside world. Together, they would have three daughters. The Perrys' home in Boston became an intellectual salon where figures such as Henry James would gather.
Around this time, Lilla began painting. One of her first known efforts was a portrait of her daughter Margaret, dating 1877-78. Lilla began taking formal art lessons in 1884 with portrait painter Alfred Quinton Collins. She subsequently studied with Robert Vonnoh who worked in the Impressionist style. In 1886, she enrolled at the Cowles Art School in Boston.
Although part of an elite family, the Perrys were not fabulously wealthy. Lilla received an inheritance when her father died in 1885. In addition, she received income from doing portrait commissions.
By 1888, the Perrys had sufficient funds to travel to Europe so that Lilla could enhance her art education. In Paris, she studied first at Academie Colorossi and then at the Academie Julian. A trip to Spain enabled her to copy Old Master works in the Prado. She also studied art in Munich.
While in Paris, Lilla spent much time visiting the museums and galleries. At the Georges Petit gallery, she saw a work by Claude Monet and was so enthralled that she became determined to meet the artist. The Perrys journeyed to Giverny where they rented a house near Monet.
By this time, the Impressionists were no longer outcasts but were attracting a growing following. Indeed, a colony of artists has formed in Giverny just because Monet now lived there.
Monet tolerated rather than encouraged his artistic neighbors. He did not give art lessons nor did he attempt to organize the artists colony. However, he did become friends with some of them. Over the summer of 1889, Lilla became one of his friends. He would discuss art with her and comment on her work. For example, Monet encouraged her to commit her first impressions of a scene to canvas rather than to a sketchbook. Lilla's style changed dramatically, becoming distinctly Impressionistic. The Perrys would return to Giverny and would spend some nine summers there.
When she returned to Boston, Lilla championed the work of Monet and the other Impressionists. Lilla encouraged her influential friends to buy Impressionist works. In addition to writing essays on Impressionism and giving lectures at the Boston Art Students Association, she staged exhibitions of Impressionistic works. Her efforts helped to popularize Impressionism in the United States.
At the same time, Lilla's own art work was being recognized. In addition to participating in exhibitions in Boston, seven of her works were selected to represent Massachusetts at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Her works were also exhibited in France.
In 1897, Thomas Perry obtained a position teaching English at a university in Japan and so the family moved to Japan. The Impressionists were greatly influenced by the Japanese wood block prints that were exported in the second half of the 19th century. Therefore, Lilla used her time in Japan to study Japanese art and meet Japanese artists. This experience led Lilla to fuse elements of Japanese art into her own work, creating a unique style. She produced more than 80 paintings in Japan.
By early in the new century, the Perrys had returned to Boston. They purchased a summer house in Hancock, New Hampshire, which was to inspire a number of landscapes.
In 1905, they made another journey to France. By now, the Perrys had spent most of Lilla's inheritance and were also the victims of poor investing. Consequently, Lilla increased her portrait work in order to produce more income. This led to a collapse of her health.
Her health recovered after the Perrys returned to the United States in 1908. Lilla continued to paint and her works were exhibited both in the United States and in Europe.
The art world was changing and Modernism was becoming the new avant garde. Once considered rebellious, Impressionism was now considered mainstream, if not conservative. To combat this trend, Lilla was a founding member of the Guild of Boston Artists.
Lilla also branched out by publishing a book of her poems in 1923. In all, she would publish four volumes of original poetry plus a translation of classical Greek verse. However, her most successful literary effort was her reminiscences of her friendship with Monet, which was published in 1927.
Thomas Perry died in 1928. Lilla continued to paint until her death in 1933.
Above: In addition to being a landscape artist, Perry was a successful portrait painter. "Lady with a Bowl of Violets".
Below: "Lady in an Evening Dress."
Perry became close friends with Claude Monet, who influenced her style as well as her choice of subjects. Above: "Haystacks, Giverny." Below: "A boat on l'Epte at Giverny."
Perry's experience in Japan led her to inject elements of Japanese art into her painting. Above: "In a Japanese Garden." Below: "Japanese Garden",
Artist appreciation - Lilla Cabot Perry