The Woman Was Lit: Artist Lilla Cabot Perry
She could have been a socialite; instead she was a seeker (and seer) of light. Lilla ( Lye-la) Cabot was born in 1848 into two prestigious families, the Cabots and the Lowells. Her artistic talent and intellect, however, led her far from the parlor.
Perry’s artistic career zoomed at nearly 40. Her extraordinary portraits show people lit by inspiration, a light that matched her own blazing powers of observation.
The Light Sets Her Subjects On Fire
Her technique, influenced by Realism, is Impressionistic in its emphasis on the light that sets her subjects on fire. Where’s it coming from? Ordinary light from a lamp or window? Or inspiration made visible?
Perry’s play with light is remarkable in her portrait of poet Edwin Arlington Robinson (1916). The man’s forehead is white-hot. Its electric gleam zaps the viewer. If you cut the lights, he’d sizzle like neon.
Likewise, Perry’s portrait of her husband, Harvard scholar Thomas Sergeant Perry, trains a search light on his intellect. The glare on his high forehead is extraordinary, its source clearly interior.
Perry’s portraits of woman and girls seek out and show their inner light. In Child at the Window, an Impressionistic portrait of Perry’s daughter, we see it’s far more than sunlight that makes her shine.
In her paintings of girls in general, Perry revealed developing minds alight with keen observations.
The brightness of her subject’s faces often contrasts with their conventionally pretty posture and dress. In Portrait of the Baroness von R. (1895) and Lady with a Bowl of Violets (1910), the women’s inner force shines, despite the fashionable drapery.
Stuck in their positions in society, their bright minds are shown conflicting with the rules and expectations that overshadow them.
Beaux’s own self-portrait shows her face shining under the weight of an ironically heavy, mushroom-like hat that nevertheless can’t put a lid on her.
By illuminating the inner lamps that light us, Perry’s work reveals more than surface brilliance; she shows us the flame of our own inspiration and our power to manifest it.