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Young Bicyclist (1895) by Lilla Cabot Perry | Courtesy WikiArt.org

The Woman Was Lit: Artist Lilla Cabot Perry

A Portraitist Who Saw the Light

Paula Sue Bryant
Sep 26, 2020 · 3 min read

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

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.

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Portrait of the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson (1916) by Lilla Cabot Perry | Colby College Special Collections, Waterfield, Maine

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.

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Portrait of Thomas Sergeant Perry (1889) by Lilla Cabot Perry | Public Domain, courtesy The Athenaeum

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.

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Child at the Window (1891) by Lilla Cabot Perry | Public Domain

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.

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Lady with a Bowl of Violets (1910) by Lilla Cabot Perry | Public Domain
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Portrait of Baroness von R. (1895), by Lilla Cabot Perry | Public Domain

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.

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The Green Hat (1913) by Lilla Cabot Perry | Public Domain

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.

For more on women painters, see Cecilia Beaux’s journey and Eva Gonzalès.

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Paula Sue Bryant

Written by

Follow your art! I write about artists, rebels and outcasts at flash points in history.

The Innovation

A place for a variety of stories from different backgrounds

Paula Sue Bryant

Written by

Follow your art! I write about artists, rebels and outcasts at flash points in history.

The Innovation

A place for a variety of stories from different backgrounds

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