PAINTER AND poet Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933) was born with a silver spoon in her mouth and rocks in her socks.

Every step she took in pursuit of her art was hobbled by Perry's status as a Boston Brahmin and a Victorian-era mother. Although her father was a Cabot and her mother a Lowell, Perry had to earn her own living, and it's hard to do that while handcuffed to relatives and balancing on a pedestal. Adding to Perry's burden was that she began her painting career after the birth of her three daughters.

That Perry persevered is cause for rejoicing, because she did as much as anyone to open American eyes to the lyrical freedom of impressionism, then went beyond it to what might be called classical abstraction.

In her time Perry was internationally celebrated, but after her death her reputation faded, partly because her style is hard to categorize and apparently also because latter-day critics have assumed from her name that she was a rich dilettante.

In the past few years Perry has been ignored by the organizers of major American impressionist shows in Boston and Philadelphia that included contemporaries of minor talent. Least explicable of all was the absence of her work from a recent French show devoted to the artists' colony at Giverny that centered on Claude Monet, who was Perry's lifelong friend and respectful professional colleague.

But now the National Museum of Women in the Arts has mounted a magnificent Perry retrospective that promises to restore her to the front rank of American artists. She'll be awfully hard to overlook after this formidable display of 75 paintings, which reveal Perry to be an impressive stylist who reveled in her artistic freedom yet never relaxed her self-discipline, so that her paintings are highly individual but not the least narcissistic.

And they are accessible. Perry plays some pretty tricks, and presents many heartwarming domestic scenes, yet she never indulges in the soupy sentimentalism that mars so much of Manet and Renoir. Although she experimented with light and color as deeply as anyone at Giverny, and as blithely broke many of the old rules of composition, line and perspective, Perry cannot be accused of arbitrariness, much less of the arrogance that many of her fellows brought to the modern art revolution.

To have won admittance to the circle of professional peers at Giverny would have justified any artist's career, but Perry also pioneered in the Orientalist movement, by going to the source. Hardly a generation after Matthew Perry, her husband's great-uncle, forced his way into Tokyo Bay, Lilla Cabot Perry became the first American -- and probably the first Western -- woman painter to study and work in Japan. The portraits and landscapes she executed there are entrancing, perceptive and prophetic.

Perry continued to paint well into her eighties. The later works, mainly misty and hauntingly suggestive New England landscapes, make one ache to think of what she might have done if she could have started earlier.

The exhibition catalogue, by curator Meredith Martindale and Pamela Moffat, is extraordinarily well-done and modestly priced at $30.


An American Impressionist -- Through Jan. 6 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW. 202/783-5000. Open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 Sundays. Suggested donation: $3 adults, $2 students. Metro: Metro Center. Good wheelchair access.