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.

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.

Many other American visitors wrote about Monet and Giverny, but Mrs. Perry's ``Reminiscences,'' published soon after his death in 1926, offered the fullest recollection and warmest tribute to the painter who so profoundly influenced American art. ``His real success,'' she concluded, ``lies in having opened the eyes ... of the world to the real aspect of nature and having led them along the path of beauty and truth and light.'' In recognition of their special kinship, one of Perry's paintings hangs today in Monet's restored Giverny home.

Perry also befriended the aging and penniless Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro, and along with fellow American painter Mary Cassatt, tried with little success to interest patrons back home in his work. Pissarro's influence is reflected in Perry's ``Dans un B^ateau'' of 1907, featuring the shimmering effects of sunlight on water and the centrally placed, monumental figure.

An influential force in Boston's art world for years, Perry sought to promote her friend Monet and promising young American Impressionists she met in Europe by displaying their works in her Marlborough Street home. At first few were interested - a notable exception was her brother-in-law, artist John LaFarge - but gradually important American Impressionist collections were formed, given impetus by her efforts. America's current mania for Monet's art and Monet products owes much to Perry's vivid descriptions of the Frenchman's expansive personality and her fervent advocacy of his paintings.

Perry was staunchly supported in her career by her husband, Thomas Sergeant Perry, a scholar and member of the Boston intelligentsia.

While he taught for three years in Tokyo around the turn of the century, his wife became the only American woman to live and paint in Japan in the 19th century. She created numerous views of Mount Fuji, and in ``In a Japanese Garden'' she combined the flat, plane perspective of Japanese prints with Impressionist light and color.

For her last several decades Perry divided her time between Boston and a farm in Hancock, New Hampshire. She turned out perceptive portraits of writers William Dean Howells and Edwin Arlington Robinson, and a series of dignified, patrician ladies, as exemplified by ``Lady with a Bowl of Violets,'' which confirmed her identification with the Boston art world. Although she continued to promote the once avant-garde work of Impressionists, she resisted the onslaught of ``modern art'' from Europe, reacting with ``horror'' to works by Henri Matisse, and denouncing the Armory Show of 1913. She teamed with painter Edmund Tarbell to establish the ultra-conservative Guild of Boston Artists, a bastion of traditional art.

Undaunted by a string of family tragedies and ill health, Perry continued to paint to the end. In her 80s, huddled in a car and warmed by hot water bottles, she painted some of her finest canvases - highly evocative, almost abstract views of the misty New Hampshire countryside in the grip of winter.

An honored painter in her day, Perry's artistic reputation faded after her death, overshadowed by the prominence of her role as Monet's American standard bearer and the fact her work was compared, unfavorably, to Cassatt's.

For a half-century Perry languished in artistic limbo. Like her first exposure to Monet's paintings a century ago, a current exhibition of her work at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., will come as a ``revelation'' to many viewers - and should restore her to an important place among American artists. `Lilla Cabot Perry: An American Impressionist,' a show that includes 74 of Cabot's works, will be on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., through Jan. 6, 1991.

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