Artworks
A Cup of Tea
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A hot cup of Earl Grey probably isn’t Massachusetts’ refreshment of choice (here’s looking at you, Boston Tea Party).

Lilla Cabot Perry was apparently unfazed by her native city’s historical beverage dumping, flouting tradition for this regal tea portrait. A Cup of Tea is a tableau of shaky origins-- even its age remains a mystery-- but the leading lady’s elegant posture and disdainful gaze pack a punch without a backstory. Forget the Lady with an Ermine and Suzanne Bloch; there’s a new stoic-faced dame in town.

At the time Perry painted A Cup of Tea-- somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century-- the featured drink wasn’t cheap. Consequently, afternoon tea was a popular indulgence of the upper crust. Massachusetts tea enthusiasts didn’t waste the leaves, eating them once boiled with salt and butter. A century prior, tea had perhaps been even more of a status symbol. The complete tea set pictured in A Cup of Tea would have seemed an oddity in those days, when women attended parties with purses filled with personal cups and saucers. Luckily, by Perry’s time guests were no longer expected to bring their own dishware to social functions. They did, however, adhere to a certain tea etiquette. In London, Lipton ads showed unattractive, pinch-faced women preparing to commit the grave sin of sipping tea straight from the saucer. They are, of course, indulging in the products of Lipton’s competitors.

A Cup of Tea is not to be confused with Mary Cassatt’s Five O’Clock Tea, a similar ode to the bourgeoisie’s afternoon tea-guzzling hour. Perhaps the two artists’ friendship can explain the similar subjects. The paintings share many likenesses, including the lace-trimmed brown dresses and elegant headgear worn by their subjects. Unfortunately, A Cup of Tea forgoes the gaudy, red-striped walls of Cassatt’s scene for an underwhelmingly beige backdrop. What good is a sitting room without a bit of ostentatious decor?

 

Sources

Sources

  1. “A Cup of Tea.” LACMA. Accessed August 31, 2018. https://collections.lacma.org/node/172882. https://www.bostonteapartyship.com/tea-blog/history-of-tea-in-massachusetts https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/22.16.17
  2. “The Cup of Tea.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed August 31, 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/22.16.17.
  3. “History of Tea in Massachusetts.” Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. September, 2013.