Lilla Cabot Perry
Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933). "Lady in a Kimono,"
oil on canvas, 32 x 26, unsigned. Subject identified
by letter from her grand-daughter.
The model for Lilla Cabot Perry's (1848-1933) Lady in a Kimono is her daughter Alice (b. 1884) who was a frequent subject and whose photographs (at Harvard and elsewhere) make this identification abundantly clear. (We hold a letter from her grand daughter
identifying the subject.) Perry painted all her children, including Margaret (b. 1876), the eldest, and Edith (b. 1880), the middle child. The children were painted individually and as a group, notably The Trio (1899), which hangs in Harvard's Fogg Museum, and which shows Margaret with violin, Edith with her cello and Alice at the piano. The painting is set in the drawing room of Perry's residence during her 3-year stay in Japan (1898-1900), and it is significant that while her older sisters are dressed in Victorian white, Alice wears an Asian design, with her hair pulled into a single Oriental braid. She was 15 at the time, and it is recorded that she was fascinated with things Japanese.
Alice was Perry's most frequent model but not because she was the most beautiful of the girls, not even because her hauteur and gaze perfectly matched Perry's intent to reveal the Boston Brahmin maiden. The more important reason is that Alice's human development fitted with the timing of her mother's artistic development. Perry didn't paint the first daughter, Margaret,
until 1878, a year after her artistic training took her to Paris. Then came the early years as Monet's summer neighbor in Giverny (1888-1898), when Perry's art flourished and Alice literally entered the picture. She is the perfect model for The Letter (1893), which expresses what Meredith Martindale calls, one of the trademarks of her portrait style, which is a focus on the empty, wistful gaze that Martindale connects particularly to Botticelli, though we see Rossetti (and his Damozel) as another source. As Martindale puts it, "solitariness and high moral innuendos go hand in hand throughout Perry's oeuvre." There is nobility as well, as in the
portrait of Alice as The Young Bicyclist (1895), which captures qualities from Perry's Portrait of the Baroness von R. done at the same time.
But there is never sensuality. Perry was of Boston's Brahmin caste, and later knew the scandal caused by the unveiling of Frederick MacMonies' nude sculpture Bacchante with Infant in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library, which was removed after being denounced as "the glorification of that which is low and sensual and degrading." We know that after resuming her visits to Giverny (1905-1909), she was unhappy to find the American painter Frederick Freiseke in her usual rental residence alongside Monet's own house. But his introduction of models from Paris who were painted nude in the garden almost on the other side of Monet's wall was resented even more. There is no nudity in Perry. Like most of her fellow Tarbellites, she deliberately avoided sexual suggestion in her representations of young womanhood.
Alice Grows Up, and the Corsage Portrait was Retitled when she Became Mrs. Grew
The single most recognized portrait of Alice Perry is the award-winning Lady with the Violet Corsage finished in 1903, and part of a burst of work centered on her between her engagement and marriage. Alice is a young woman of 19, and she will be married in 1905 to the young diplomat Joseph Clark Grew. But as early as her engagement in 1904, the Lady with the Violet Corsage was retitled as the Portrait of Mrs. J. C. Grew. And in that year or the next, Perry will also do the pastels of Alice known as the Lady in the White Hat and the Lady in Black (in the Smithsonian and not to be confused with another work of the same title), which we think are the last renditions of Alice as subject. In these two final works, Perry recaptured the expressionless hauteur she wanted.