Urgent Museum Notice

Image for A Case Of Mistaken Identity? Spotlight On Lilla Cabot Perry

A Case of Mistaken Identity? Spotlight on Lilla Cabot Perry

Blog Category:  Artist Spotlight

Lady with a Bowl of Violets (ca. 1910) has been called one of NMWA’s “best-loved works.” Lilla Cabot Perry (1848–1933) painted this Impressionist portrait of an unknown sitter more than 100 years ago, however, the origins of the painting’s title are still unclear. The descriptive yet simple name presents a complex question: Is the work wrongly titled?
In 1990, NMWA presented one of the first major exhibitions of Perry’s paintings in more than 20 years. As part of that exhibition, former NMWA curators Meredith Martindale and Pamela Moffat published a catalogue that worked to expand the scholarship surrounding Perry beyond her interaction with the Impressionist movement and close friendship with Claude Monet.

Lilla Cabot Perry, Lady With a Bowl of Violets, ca. 1910; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay
Lilla Cabot Perry, Lady With a Bowl of Violets, ca. 1910; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

In Lilla Cabot Perry: An American Impressionist, Martindale and Moffat examined Lady with a Bowl of Violets and declared something surprising: the “violets” are not violets at all, but pansies. The scholars note that many of Perry’s works have only been attributed titles in recent years and suggest that in this instance the late designation has “led to a total misrepresentation.”
According to Martindale and Moffat, the titles of many of Perry’s works are missing or ambiguous. The artist’s account book disappeared at some point, often leaving others to guess at dates and titles. The researchers suggest “Perry herself was not consistent . . . and some of her paintings have as many as three different titles during her lifetime.”
The title of Lady with a Bowl of Violets is questioned for several additional reasons relating to the lives of Perry and her husband, Thomas. Perry also wrote poetry; her collection of poems, The Jar of Dreams, includes several pansy references that are noted in the 1990 exhibition catalogue:  “Pansies, white pansies and purple ones/Deep as the love I gave to you, my flower.” Similarly, the catalogue notes Thomas Perry had a similar affinity for the flower. He is quoted: “Pansies are, I think, my favorite flower, they have such a mischievous wink and their colours, especially the purple, touch my heart. . . .” This heartfelt attachment to the flower suggests the current title may indeed miss the mark, as Perry was certainly familiar enough with the flowers to tell them apart.
Further, grounds for a potential mistitling can be revealed through considering the identity of the painting’s sitter. Martindale and Moffat suggest the young woman in Lady with a Bowl of Violets is a professional model. However, when compared to a portrait of Perry’s daughter, Alice in a White Hat (ca. 1904), it is hard to ignore a resemblance. The personal meanings of pansies as well as the possible family relationship between the sitter and artist offer a more intimate understanding of the work—one that could be better understood with a more appropriate title.
However, a biographical and visual analysis does not fully explain how this possible misattribution could have occurred. A scientific review of pansies and violets presents additional elements to consider when deciphering the current title. The “violet” is a term used for the smaller flowering annuals of the viola genus that includes more than 550 different species.  A “pansy” is included within the viola family but refers exclusively to a large-flowering, multi-colored variety.  So, can you tell the difference? Has Ms. Perry presented pansies? Is the title simply the product of an amateur horticulturist? Or does a flower by any other name smell just as sweet?

Related Posts

  • Art Fix Friday: March 5, 2021

    Posted: Mar 05, 2021 in Art Fix Friday
    An expansive profile on LaToya Ruby Frazier in the New York Times Magazine; Japanese artist Toko Shinoda has died at age 107; and more.
    A black-and-white photograph of a light-skinned adult woman holding a newspaper with news about World War II. She wears a coat and her short, curly hair is caught in the wind.
    Blog Category:  Art Fix Friday
  • Director’s Desk: Editing for Equity

    Posted: Mar 04, 2021 in Director's Desk
    Join us for our next Wikipedia Edit-a-thon this Saturday, March 6, when we will improve or create entries for women artists of African descent whose work is in NMWA’s collection.
    A woman with ombré dreadlocks sits at a table working on her laptop. Two other women are doing the same thing at different tables directly behind and in front of the woman.
    Blog Category:  Director's Desk
  • Now Open—Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend

    Posted: Mar 03, 2021 in NMWA Exhibitions
    This midcareer survey features approximately 100 of Clark's mixed-media works that probe identity and visibility, appraise the force of the African Diaspora, and redress history.
    Two head caps made of small, blue glass beads rest on two black mannequin heads. The two caps are connected at the tops by a beaded chain. The left cap is made of darker blue beads and the right cap is made of lighter blue beads. The chain combines both shades.
    Blog Category:  NMWA Exhibitions