Lilla Cabot Perry (1848–1933)
Self-Portrait, c. 1889–96
Lilla Cabot Perry was instrumental in introducing American audiences to impressionism through her figure paintings, portraits, and landscapes. In the only self-portrait in which she presents herself as a working artist, she is a commanding figure. Wearing a lavender smock and a black bowtie over her high-necked blouse, she holds the palette in her left hand and extends her right arm toward the canvas on her easel. She is turned away from her work and looks outward, as if toward a mirror she likely used in painting herself. Perry was profoundly influenced by the French painter Claude Monet (1840–1926), whose open brushwork, rapid and direct techniques, and bright colors she adopted. This work attests to her abilities as a portraitist as well as to her status as a successful professional woman.
Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.
Portraits (self- and otherwise) are inevitably, to borrow a phrase from the writer Henry James (1843–1916), “partial portraits”: representations that are incomplete, biased, or appreciative. Lilla Cabot Perry’s self-portrait is inevitably partial though it seems straightforward, conventional, and simple in composition: she depicts herself as a serious artist in the act of painting, using a style that reflects her formal training in Boston and Paris, as well as the influence of her impressionist mentor, Claude Monet (1840–1926). The image engages the viewer because we are invited to read what is visible and also what is not.
An unseen mirror enabled Perry to paint this image. Unlike self-portraits in which the subject looks out at the viewer directly, in this one the artist’s gaze is on her reflection in a mirror to her left. The mirror also reflects an image on the back wall that may be a window or a painting; either way, it serves as a counterpoint to the artist working indoors. She is undeterred by the waving figure—perhaps her husband—so close to her line of sight, but depicted outside. One might interpret the juxtaposition of the two figures to be a comment on how, despite the unexpected blurring of gender roles in her life, she thrived and prevailed.
The artist’s marriage to Thomas Sergeant Perry (1845–1928) was a happy one, but his lack of a steady income compelled her, an accomplished poet and translator, to take up painting and become the breadwinner of the family, a role for which her upbringing in a prominent Boston Brahmin family had not prepared her. In an era in which men occupied the public sphere and women the private, she straddled both, earning acclaim through her paintings, introducing impressionist art to the United States and Japan, intellectually engaging her husband (a literary critic and translator) and members of their various circles, and instilling in her three daughters a keen sense of the world.
The couple’s spousal responsibilities were often realigned or shared. For example, when Thomas Perry taught English literature for three years at Keio University in Japan (1898–1901), his family joined him in Tokyo, and it was he who mostly stayed in town to look after their daughters, then in their teens and early twenties, while Lilla pursued her profession by traveling to scenic locations in Japan to sketch and paint.
This self-portrait thus reminds us how conventional views of privilege, gender, and space in the late nineteenth century can be upended. A privileged female upbringing does not preclude having to work out of financial necessity. Painting oneself in a setting that suggests the familial does not necessarily represent being confined to the domestic sphere, unable to engage with a predominantly male artistic world; Perry was a successful transatlantic artist who later painted Japanese landscapes that male artists such as Monet could only dream of. Finally, compartmentalizing one’s family life (here, possibly reducing her husband to a small indistinct figure framed by a window) to concentrate on one’s art does not have to be disastrous.
The cautiously confident, contemplative expression on Perry’s face in this painting seems tempered by the knowledge that her accomplishments were hard-won. Read in this light, her “partial self-portrait” provides a tantalizing glimpse of a complex and courageous life.