Lilla Cabot Perry, Young Caretaker, c1899
Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933) is an interesting figure in the history of art. She was an American Impressionist painter, as well as an important advocate of French Impressionist painters in America. Perry was born in Boston and began her career very influenced by that environment and the style of American Impressionism. In 1887 she moved to Paris with her family and began studying painting there, also becoming friends with Mary Cassatt and Camille Pissarro. In 1889 Perry met Claude Monet in Giverny and he became a close friend and mentor. Between 1889 and 1909, Perry spent nine summers in Giverny working with Monet and learning from his experience, and her work showed a profound development after she arrived at Giverny. Young Caretaker is an unusual piece in both Perry's oeuvre and Impressionism in general. While Impressionist painters showed great interest in Japonisme, their use of it rarely extended beyond an orientalized portrait of a European woman or landscape. Perry, meanwhile, actually traveled to Japan in 1897 when her husband an appointment as an English professor there. Perry was greatly inspired by the three years she spent there and produced several paintings in that time, deviating from her usual subject–her daughters. In this painting, Perry shows a young Japanese girl carrying a child on her back. Whether this girl is a young mother, older sister, or otherwise is unclear but Perry's depiction is quite moving. With her loose, Impressionist paint handling, and off-center composition, Perry's canvas is already quite arresting, but the power of the piece resides in the faces of her two subjects. The baby is sleeping with eyes closed, serene and gentle, and somewhat in shadow. The girl's face, meanwhile, is bright, alert, and intense. The extreme emotion in her eyes is thoroughly engaging, and her role as caretaker completely occupies her psyche. As she looks directly out of the painting at the viewer we can feel her warmth and love.