A Boston Brahmin In Monet's Garden
Lilla Cabot Perry was his friend and student
A GENUINE New England Brahmin, descended from Cabots and Lowells, and a member of Boston's inner art circle, Lilla Cabot Perry altered the course of American art by introducing her countrymen to Claude Monet and Impressionism. A gifted painter of landscapes and portraits, she won prestigious awards and earned critical acclaim. Her example opened up the world of art to generations of talented women, revolutionized American painting, and laid the groundwork for today's passion for Monet. Born into a patrician Boston family, Perry (1848-1933) was well into her 30s, married, and mother of three daughters before she began serious art training in Boston and later Paris. Although many contemporaries assumed from her lineage that she was an amateur, she actually became a hard-working professional artist, forced to rely - as she complained - on the ``bondage'' of portrait commissions to supplement the family's modest income. Her self-portrait of 1891 reveals a serious, determined artist. Ironically, at a time when society frowned on working women, Perry depicted elegant Boston ladies who look as though they had stepped out of a Henry James novel. Almost as a happy sideline, she painted loving but introspective canvases of her daughters as they grew up.Skip to next paragraph
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Her first glimpse of Monet's paintings, in Paris in 1889, came as a ``revelation.'' Perry immediately grasped the importance of Impressionism at a time when it was largely rejected by the American public. Meeting Monet at his home in Giverny that summer, the Perrys established a lifelong friendship. ``His rugged honesty, his disarming frankness, his warm and sensitive nature,'' Perry later recalled, ``was fully as impressive as his pictures.''
Over the next two decades the Perrys spent half their summers in Giverny, often occupying the house next door to the great master. Hounded by tourists and artists, Monet invited few visitors to his enclave. The Perrys were exceptions: The Monets hosted a dinner to welcome them back for another summer and they exchanged cards at Christmas.
Perry strolled with Monet in his garden, soaked up his ideas about art, and absorbed his terse comments about her works in progress. Responding to her mentor's advice, Perry lightened her palette, emphasizing color and light. In depicting such typical Monet scenes as haystacks, poppies, and the garden at Giverny, she reflected his admonition to portray ``not the object isolated as in a test tube, but the object enveloped in sunlight and atmosphere.'' Perry, who called Monet the ``world's greatest landscape artist,'' adopted his techniques, theories, and subjects more completely than any other American painter.
Perry was struck by Monet's ``artistic conscientiousness,'' which made him hypercritical of his own work. One time Monet expressed his dissatisfaction by kicking a hole in an uncompleted canvas with a wooden shoe. On another occasion, while painting in his boat, he decided to give up painting altogether and tossed all his equipment overboard.
Once Perry took Boston art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner to Monet's studio, where Mrs. Gardner tried in vain to buy a certain picture; Monet said he couldn't sell it until he finished the series to make sure it was up to his standard. A year or two later he casually mentioned to Perry that he had burned over 30 canvases, including the one coveted by Mrs. Gardner. ``I must look after my artistic reputation while I can,'' Monet explained. ``Once I am dead no one will destroy any of my paintings, no matter how poor they may be.'' The Perrys last saw Monet in 1909, but they kept in touch by letters for years afterwards.