Writer on art and literature. Paget's mother, Matilda Paget (1815-1896), came from a West-Indies fortune. Paget's father, Henry Ferguson Paget (1820-1894), was reputedly the son of a French émigré noble, who met Matilda (then Matilda Adams), a widow, when he was a tutor for her son Eugene in Paris. Violet was their only child together. Because of her family's frequent moves in Europe, Violet learned continental languages fluently. Her half-brother, now Oxford educated and in the Foreign Office in Paris, continued to tutor her French and writing skills. It was because of this that she adopted his surname (Lee) as her pseudonym. She met the future painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) in Nice when they were both children. Sargent and Paget determined to be painter and writer in their later lives. Sargent's mother, Mary Newbold Sargent, gave Paget an interest in Roman antiquities during the time that the two families spent in Rome. In 1880, Paget published her first cultural writing, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, the culmination of ten years of manuscript research. The work, credited with reviving interest in eighteenth-century Italian drama and music, met with scholarly approval and remained cited in scholarly literature well into the twentieth century. With her family permanently settled in Florence, Paget made her first visit to England in 1881. This brought an invitation and exchange from her fellow writer/art historian Walter Pater. The same year, Belcaro her first art-historical work, appeared. Paget, now known as Violet Paget, published a variety of non-fiction (travel literature, memoirs, religious essays, aesthetics, and literary criticism) as well as supernatural and historical short fiction in the 1880s. In 1884 she published Euphorion: being Studies of the Antique and the Mediaeval in the Renaissance which confirmed her reputation as an art writer. The same year, however, she also produced the novel Miss Brown, an overwritten satire on the Pre-Raphaelites, which even the dedicatee, Henry James (1843-1916), could not stomach. Lee's reputation never fully recovered from this failure. In London she met and perhaps had an affair with a fellow female classicist, Eugénie Sellers Strong. Beginning in the 1890s, Lee formed a permanent lesbian relationship with the painter and theorist Clementina Anstruther-Thomson, living with her six months of every year in Florence experimenting with the psychological aspects of color and art. She began writing travel literature, perhaps her best writing, with Limbo and Other Essays in 1897, an early history of Italian gardens. Edith Wharton dedicated her 1904 Italian Villas and their Gardens to Lee, "who, better than any one else, has understood and interpreted the garden-magic of Italy." A study of Perugino appeared as In Umbria: a Study of Artistic Personality in 1906. In 1912 Anstruther-Thomson and Lee published Beauty and Ugliness and Other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics, which had first appeared in journal Contemporary Review of 1897. It introduced a new esthetic to a British tradition still controlled by Pater's work. The following year, The Beautiful: an Introduction to Psychological Aesthetics appeared, written solely by Lee as part of the Cambridge Manuals of Science and Literature series. In it, Lee summarizes the Germanic-British theories of empathy (cf. Wilhelm Worringer and Theodor Lipps), which Bernard Berenson considered outright plagiarism. Other psychological works by her included The Handling of Words and other Studies in Literary Psychology in 1923. Another travel collection, The Golden Keys and other Essays on the Genius Loci appeared in 1925. Lee joined the pacifist Union of Democratic Control during World War I, combining it with support for feminist issues at the International Congress of Women at The Hague. Her most famous anti-war statement was the1915 play The Ballet of the Nations. The final twenty years of her life were spent in relative isolation continuing her role as an ex-patriot. She died in 1935 at her home, Villa Il Palmerino, in Florence. Her cremated ashes are interred in the grave of her half-brother, Eugene, in the Allori cemetery, Florence. Her work was praised by Aldous Huxley. Sargent painted a portrait of Lee in 1881 (now in the Tate collection) and another portrait was made by Mary Cassatt in 1895.
Belcaro argued for the combining intellectual and physical embodiment of beauty. Lee countered the assertion made by John Ruskin that fine art needed to represent morality. Art's value, she argued, was higher than morality, it was the creation of happiness. The enthusiastically received Euphorion,1884, however partisan, includes perceptive essays on Renaissance art. Lee's book on art esthetics, The Beautiful, 1913, argues that shape (or form) is key to art appreciation, combined with the other intellectual and emotional reactions, especially, again empathy.