The blog today features the very talented nineteenth century Swedish female landscape and portrait painter, Julia Augusta Lovisa Beck.
Julia Beck was born in Stockholm on December 20th 1853. Her father, Franz Beck, was a German immigrant from the Rhineland-Palatinate who had set himself up as a successful bookbinder. Her mother was Charlotte Julia Beck (née Carlsson). She had a brother, Johan Viktor, who was one year older than her. Viktor helped out at his father’s workshop and would later become part of the father’s bookbinding business, whereas Julia concentrated on her painting. She initially enrolled on courses in wood engraving and decorative painting at the local Slöjdskolan (School of handicraft). When she was eighteen years old she became a student at the Konstakademie, the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and enrolled in a five-year state-run art course. It had only been since eight years before that the Academy had begun to accept female students and she was assigned to the Ladies Section which although the tutors were the same as those who taught the male students, the females had fewer lectures and were taught in a different building. She and her fellow female art students, known as the “painter-girls” mixed with the male students and Julia was instrumental in setting up a student society and a student newspaper, Palettskrap.
For aspiring young artists the place to be was Paris, which had taken on the mantle of the leading art centre of Europe. Julia wasted no time after completing her course at the Academy to travel to Paris to avail herself of the best art tuition and in 1880 she had great success when she had her self portrait exhibited at the annual Salon de Paris, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The painting depicting her in a plumed hat was admired for its depth of colour and realistic depiction.
In 1881 Julia Beck, who was then twenty-eight years old, enrolled at the Académie Julian where she received tuition from Léon Bonnat and Jean Léon Gérôme. The Académie Julian was one of the the main art establishment in Paris that accepted female students. The other state-run art establishments in Paris did not accept women as students until the 1890s. The influential École des Beaux-Arts did not begin admitting women until 1897. From studying under those two much-heralded artists she left the Académie Julian and went to study at the school run by the Belgian artist, Alfred Stevens.
Julia Beck shared spacious lodgings in Paris with four Scandinavian painters, the Swedish painters, Hildegard Thorell, Anna Norstedt and Elizabeth Keyser and the Norwegian, Harriet Backer. Like many artists of the time who were living and studying in Paris, Julia liked to spend time in the tranquillity of the rural environment which could be found to the south of the capital. The small village of Barbizon, near the Forest of Fontainebleau, was popular with artists between 1830 and 1870 who were looking for something different from the formalism of Academic training and sought creativeness directly from nature and suddenly scenes of nature became the subject of paintings rather than simply an add-on backdrop.
Julia was one of the first Scandinavian artists to visit another artist colony, twenty kilometres south of Barbizon, at Grez sur Loing. It was the rural village, which was to attract many American and Scandinavian painters, including many of the Skagen artists.
In one of Margie White’s excellent blogs, American Girls Art Club in Paris…and Beyond, she talks about the attraction of the artists’ colony:
“…Grez became a popular summer travel destination for American artists in Paris after a train station and a new hotel were built. In 1860. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot’s painting View of the Loing at Grez (1850-60) may have worked like a Grez travel poster, inducing many art students to come and try to paint it themselves. Word about Grez circulated through the Academie Julian in Paris as well as Carolus-Duran’s studio…’
Julia Beck completed a painting featuring the area entitled Gréz zur Nemours in 1885. It was a good example of the work she favoured at that time. She often depicted glistening water reflections in a romantic grey-scale which reflected verdant trees in full leaf and occasionally the odd birds but rarely do people feature in her landscapes. It was all about her love for nature and how she captured it during periods of ever-changing light during various times of the day and the differing seasons. There was a kind of meditative atmosphere to her depictions achieved by her choice of colours. There is a definite hint of Impressionism, which we saw in the work of Claude Monet. In the foreground, we see reeds and foliage depicted in a style similar to that seen in Japanese and Chinese art, which was very popular in Europe at the time.
If we study her work we can see she has carefully examined the rural lands of the area both at dusk and dawn and by doing so saw how the light from the sun and the shadows differed immensely. She had a special attraction to depicting motionless waters with verdant backdrops. She liked to depict how the light fell on the water of slow-moving rivers and lakes. There can be no doubt she was influenced and stimulated by the paintings of the Impressionist artists. Her plein air depictions were simply as she saw them and were often expressed in pinks, turquoise and green.
Her paintings were not always set with bright sunny conditions. One of her most moody and inspiring works is an oil painting entitled The Raven Swamp, in which we see ravens in both the foreground and background circling an almost-stagnant stretch of water. What adds to the sombre mood of the painting is the way in which the lake and the sky have the same colour. How would you describe it? Muted, melancholic or simply a study of quiet beauty?
Julia Beck, who lived in a rented studio with her friends in Paris and had spent the summers at Grez sur Loing was constantly on the move and would often return to her homeland, Sweden, on many trips during the 1870s and 1880s. Maybe she became disillusioned with her nomadic lifestyle and wanted to put down roots so, in 1888, she decided to set up a permanent home in France. She chose Vaucresson, a small town in the western suburbs of Paris in the Hauts-de-Seine department, a few miles from the centre of the capital. It was close to rural areas, which were often the subject of her artworks. A painting entitled L’Etang (The Pond)Saint-Cucufa, près Vaucresson depicts an area close to Vaucresson. The wood of Saint-Cucufa, also known as the forest of Malmaison , is a wood and a pond in the department of Hauts-de-Seine managed by the French National Forest Office.
Her reasoning behind making her permanent home in France rather than back in Sweden was probably due to the fact that the Parisian art market was buoyant and at this time French art critics were in love with Scandinavian art. Vaucresson was also not a long train ride from the Belgian border and the towns of Bruges and Gent where she had a number of clients. When asked why she did not return to live in Sweden she replied:
“…In Sweden I could never learn to paint the sun – it is so hard to see, the air is clear, oui, but in Normandy the atmosphere is misty and there I could see the sun glittering in the haze and on the sea…”
Julia Beck remained unmarried all her life. She had had many female Scandinavian artist friends who, once married, had given up their art to look after their home and family. That course of action was not for her as her true love was her art. One of her paintings she completed in the last years of her life was her 1931 work entitled Nénuphars (Water Lillies) which once again reminds us of Monet and Impressionism.
France appreciated her artistic talent and in 1934 she was awarded the Legion d’Honneur. She exhibited widely in Paris and abroad and received a number of medals for her paintings. Sadly the Swedish art fraternity did not take kindly to her abandonment of her country and she was not allowed to exhibit in the Swedish pavilion at the 1900 World Fair in Paris.
Julia Beck died in Vaucresson on September 21st 1935, aged 81.
Today’s is a shorter blog. It is going to be an unusual blog for me as I am not showcasing an artist or a painting. I am going to look at the work and the life of a sculptor. I have never been a great lover of sculpture even though I know it is a skilful art form, but it is just not for me. So why the blog?
The reason for looking at this sculptor and his work is that I happened to see some of his sculptures whilst walking around the old part of Cadiz a fortnight ago and happened upon the Casa de Iberoamérica. The definition of the term Ibero-America or Iberian America is that it is a region in the Americas comprising of countries or territories where Spanish or Portuguese are the predominant languages and are usually former territories of Portugal or Spain.
The Casa de Iberoamérica, House of Ibero-America in Cadiz is located in the 18th-century building on Concepción Arenal Street on the edge of the Old Town of Cadiz. It was once the building that housed the Royal Prison. The foundation stone for the building was laid in 1794 but it was not completed until 1836. The buildings remained a prison until 1966 when it was abandoned. Subsequently, it was decided to use it as a courthouse thus preventing it from becoming a crumbling ruin. In 2006 the building was returned to the City Council, and in January 2011 it became the Casa de Iberoamérica.
On entering the sumptuous marble-floored building I found that its permanent exhibition on the ground floor highlighted the work of the Dutch-born sculptor Cornelis Zitman. The exhibition comprised of 78 pieces, of which 49 were sculptures, 28 drawings, and a single oil painting. The selection on show was made up of pieces from Zitman’s whole career, from 1946 to 2007.
Carlos Zitman was born to a family of construction workers in Leiden, in the Netherlands on November 9th, 1926. He studied drawing at the Academy of Fine Arts in Leiden and at the age of sixteen, Zitman enrolled in the painting classes at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. Following the completion of his studies there in 1947 he was called up to serve in the Dutch military in Indonesia but he refused on the grounds that he disagreed with the Netherlands’ political actions in that country, and so, to avoid incarceration, fled the country aboard a Swedish oil tanker that was bound for the oil fields of Aruba and Venezuela.
In 1948, Zitman settled in the northern Venezuelan coastal town of Coro, where he found employment as a technical draftsman for a construction company. In that same year, he married a Dutch lady, Vera Roos, whom he had first met in The Netherlands. The couple went on to have three children, Berend, Lourens and Barbara. Much of his free time was spent painting and creating sculptures. Later, in 1949, he moved to the city of Caracas, and the following year, he found work as a furniture designer at a factory of which he later became the manager. In 1951, he was awarded the National Sculpture Prize. In 1955 he was hired by the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the Universidad Central de Venezuela to teach courses in decoration, drawing, watercolour and gouache, which was then combined into a design workshop.
In 1958, he exhibited a collection of drawings and paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Caracas. That year, he decided to give up his life as a businessman and concentrate on his art and sculpture and moved with his family to the island of Grenada, where he dedicated himself completely to painting and began to affirm his style in sculpting.
In 1961 he took part in an exhibition of Gropper Gallery in Boston. He returned to Holland, and studied foundry techniques with Pieter Starrevelt, in Amersfort, and then went back to Caracas where he was given the post as a design professor at the Architecture School of the Central University of Venezuela. In 1964 he converted an old sugar cane mill, known as a trapiche into his residence and workshop, in Caracas’ Hacienda de la Trinidad.
In 1970, Zitman met Dina Viery, a Russian immigrant, and French art dealer, art collector and one time a model for the French painter and sculptor Astride Maillol whom she met in 1934. Viery was a great friend of Maillol during the last ten years of his life and when he died she helped establish the Musée Maillol art museum in Paris. From then on, Zitman dedicated himself exclusively to sculpture. More exhibitions of his work followed in Venezuela, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United States, Japan and other countries, earning a host of national and international awards.
Zitman died on 10 January 2016 at the age of 89. Zitman earned numerous national and international awards for his work and in 2005 he was decorated with the Knight of the Order of the Netherlands Lion.
I will leave you with a recent write-up from the Diario de Cádiz, a Spanish-language newspaper published in Cadiz, regarding the Cornelis Zitman’s permanent exhibition at the Casa de Iberoamérica in Cadiz:
“…The sculpture by Cornelis Zitman bases a style and a language generated from various positions and that he gets to make them extremely personal. On the one hand, we find references to the plastic strength and forceful sense of the static of Arístides Maillol; he also drinks the source of that volumetric reductionism that characterized a part of the work of Henri Moore and, in Zitman with much more creative intensity, the generous bodies of Fernando Botero. In that supposed shaker would have to take a meticulous observation of reality, of everyday life; a spark of ingenuity, a knowledge of the autochthonous and an overdose of decisive drawing that shapes the forms and accentuates the powerful modeling. With all of them we obtain a brave, pure work, without artifice, a sculpture that vindicates the great plastic manifestation so unfortunately forgotten in the most immediate art…”
One of the pleasures of writing my blog is that I am constantly discovering artists I had previously never heard of. Along the way, there are also many other discoveries, which are not related to art, which I find fascinating. Today’s blog is a prime example of this. My featured artist today is the nineteenth-century American painter, Grace Carpenter Hudson, one of the most celebrated painters of Native American subjects, with her artistic speciality being the pictorial documentation of a Native American group, the Pomo tribe, who lived close to where she was born and lived most of her life. As a child, I was brought up watching Cowboy and Indian films and TV shows featuring the likes of the Midwest tribes of the Sioux, Comanche, and Apache et al. However until researching the life of Grace Hudson, I had never come across this Californian Native American tribe, known as the Pomo.
The word ‘Pomo’ means “those who live at red earth hole” and refers to their earth lodge pit houses that were built with red coloured earth which were the winter homes of the tribe. They were hunter-gatherers and relied upon fishing and hunting for their daily food supply. The territory they originally occupied in Northern California was vast. To the west, the border of their land was the Pacific Ocean. To the east, their territory stretched to the area around Clear Lake. Their north-south boundaries were Cleone in the north and Duncans Point in the south. Sadly, like most indigenous people around the world they were not allowed to live in peace.
During the 1800s foreigners were constantly invading their tribal lands. The Russian fur traders, looking for sea otters treated the Pomo people they encountered with brutality. The Spanish had arrived on the Southern Pomo country looking to convert the tribe to Christianity and forcing them to work as slaves in Spanish missions. In 1821 when the Spaniards finally left the Mexicans took their place and they, once again, forced the Pomo people to work as slaves on Mexican ranches. In 1848, with news of the Californian gold rush, hordes of American prospectors arrived from the east. It was not just the savagery of the “intruders” but the diseases they brought with them that the Pomo people could not withstand. A cholera epidemic in 1833 followed by a smallpox epidemic in 1838 decimated the Pomo community. Around the area where the Carpenter family lived the white pioneers moved onto the Pomo ancestral territory taking the most fertile land in the valley for themselves, the Pomo people were increasingly suffering and on the brink of starvation.
Grace Carpenter was born on February 21st 1865 in the small town of Potter Valley, in the Mendocino county of Northern California, some one hundred and thirty miles north of San Francisco. It was named after two of its founders William and Thomas Potter in 1852. Her father was Aurelius Ormando Carpenter a newspaperman/photographer and her mother was Helen Carpenter (née McCowen). Aurelius, simply known as A.O. and his wife arrived in California from the Kansas Territory, where A.O. had served alongside revolutionary leader John Brown in the fight to secure Kansas’s entry into the Union as a state free from slavery. They stopped off at Green Valley in Western California and, in 1860, were two of the earliest white settlers in Potter Valley. Grace Carpenter had a twin brother, Grant and an older sister, May. Once Grace’s parents had settled in Potter Valley her father worked part-time as a newspaperman and part-time as a rancher whilst her mother taught the Pomo children at a local school and the whole family tried to help the Promo people the best that they could.
At the age of four, Grace moved with her family from Potter Valley to the nearby larger town of Ukiah and it was here that the family number increased by one with the arrival of another son, Frank. Grace’s mother and father branched out into a joint project, that of studio photography. As a young child, Grace had started to show an interest in drawing. Once she and her twin brother had finished their primary school education in May 1878, and because there were no high schools in Ukiah, in the autumn, Grace went to live in San Francisco, and attend an ordinary state-run high school whilst, at the same time, receive private art lessons.
Grace’s parents had been aware how talented Grace was with regards her artwork and so, in early 1879, shortly after her fourteenth birthday they enrolled her at the San Francisco School of Design, which was under the directorship of the American painter, Virgil Macey Williams. Whilst at the School, Grace studied how to draw from casts and sculptures, and then moved on to life drawing with live models. She also experimented in painting using a variety of media as well as taking part in plein air classes. Her progress at the School of Design was swift. Her winning of the highly sought after Alvord Gold Medal in 1881 for the best full-length study in crayon from a cast was followed by a hearty comment from her portraiture teacher, Oscar Kunath who stated that she was the most talented pupil he had ever taught.
Sixteen-year-old Grace was enjoying her time in San Francisco. She was vivacious and was described as a petite attractive brunette with a sprinkling of freckles across her face and this beauty brought her a number of suitors during her art school days. Grace, as well as attending the art school, helped out her father at his photographic studio. Her main job was hand tinting the black and white photographic portraits her father had captured with his cameras, (manually adding colour to a black and white photograph, so as to heighten the realism of the photograph).
Grace remained the San Francisco School of design until the autumn of 1883 and that December she returned to her home in Ukiah. Her return to Ukiah was not the joyful homecoming that one might have expected as Grace had met and begun a serious relationship with a man fifteen years her senior and whose previous relationship had resulted in the birth of a child. The “love of her life” was thirty-three-year-old real estate and money broker William T Davis. Grace’s parents were horrified with their daughter’s liaison with a man they considered totally unsuitable. The more Grace told her mother and father that she was in love with Davis the more they became adamant that he was not “the one” for her. Following the Christmas break, they managed to persuade Grace to stay in Ukiah and thus, away from her suitor. To complicate matters further another of her admirers and good friend, Edward Epsey, who had been a fellow art student in San Francisco and had expressed his desire to see more of her, had returned from studying at the Académie Julian in Paris and become a talented young artist. Grace’s parents also liked Epsey. Decisions decisions!
Against the wishes of her parents, Grace did choose which suitor she loved most and in September 1884 after spending the spring and summer at home, she left and returned to San Francisco and into the arms of William Davis. The couple eloped and married but the relationship did not last and just over two years later, in December 1886, Mrs Grace Davis was granted a divorce absolute and she returned to her family in Ukiah. Whether it was the trials and tribulations of married life and its eventual breakdown, one will never know, except to say her artistic output had almost dried up and very few works exist with the signature Grace Davis. From 1885 to 1890, Grace lived with her parents in Ukiah. She continued to paint including genre, landscapes and still lifes in various media. She also occasionally taught and supplied illustrations to magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Overland Monthly.
Although she was very unhappy with what happened to her first real love affair, Grace carried on with her paintings. It was five years later that another chance of love visited her in the shape of Doctor John Wilz Napier Hudson. Hudson was an American physician who had an interest in Tennessee archaeology, and ethnologist. He had graduated from the Medical College of Nashville and then worked several years at the University of Tennessee. Later he practiced medicine as a homoeopathic physician. He left his native Nashville, Tennessee in 1889, to take up the position of a physician for the newly extended San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad Company, which had its terminus and medical centre in Grace’s hometown, Ukiah. Hudson was soon accepted into Ukiah’s social circles and met the Cartwright family. Hudson had been brought up in a strict family setting with his father, a physician, expecting his son to tread in his footsteps and become a doctor whereas his son’s first love was ethnology, which is the study of the characteristics of different peoples and the differences and relationships between them. Hudson found the Carpenter family totally different from his own and enjoyed their progressive attitude to life, which could not have been more different than his own conventional and conservative upbringing. A year after his arrival Grace Carpenter married John Hudson and this time, for Grace, she received her parent’s blessing.
John’s main interest was in ethnology and through Grace’s parents’ longstanding connections to the local Pomo families, he discovered a wealth of information regarding them, their basketry and culture and this provided him with a foundation for his own cultural and linguistic studies. John joined Grace in her interest in basketry and over the years managed to build a very large collection of the various baskets made by the tribe. John Hudson offered Grace his support for her art and would urge her to focus her paintings on the Pomo people, with whom she was so familiar. Grace and John were both very aware that the Pomo tribe, through disease and war with their “intruders” were on the cusp of extinction. Both Grace and her husband realised that the Pomo Indians were a vanishing race and that it was important that through Grace’s art they should be portrayed with compassion and deference for their culture. John and Grace realised that if Grace’s artwork focused on the Pomo people it could well make a professional name for her depicting a subject that no other artist had considered. Once Grace had decided on that strategy she began to become more methodical with the output of her work. In the summer of 1891 she began what she termed “her painting diary” and within the tome, she would carefully chronicle information about each of her works she believed were good enough to be sold.
The first painting she recorded, as “Number 1” was her painting entitled National Thorn. This was a true-to-life portrait of a slumbering Pomo baby in a cradle basket, guarded by a watchful dog. This maternal choice of a sleeping Indian child to be the focus of the work was not one, which would occur to a male artist of the time, and its popularity meant that it was one that Grace would return to time and time again throughout her career. Midway through the painting, it was seen by H. Jay Smith, the director of the art department of the Minneapolis Industrial Exposition, who was in the Ukiah area, visiting the Hudson’s on a Pomo basket buying expedition. He fell in love with the incomplete painting he saw on Grace’s easel, with its sensitive portrayal and unusual theme. He immediately asked to buy the painting, once completed. Grace agreed and it appeared at the Minneapolis Industrial Exposition. Visitors at the Exposition loved the sentimental work and it was quickly sold. It was not just the sale of the work which pleased Grace, it was the constructive and encouraging publicity that followed the Exposition which made her realise that her choice of subject was a winner.
In 1892, her Number Two, Number Three and Number Four works appeared at the Exposition. The painting logged by Grace as Number Four was entitled Quail Baby sometimes referred to as TheInterrupted Bath. Critics praised her for how she sympathetically portrayed the Pomo child. The depiction shows a small Pomo child looking quite startled as if he had been caught unaware of the artist’s presence. There is such a poignancy about this depiction.
Also in 1892 Grace produced painting Number 5 in her series of numbered oils, entitled Little Mendocino. It was exhibited at the Midwinter Fair in San Francisco, and in 1893 it was hung at the World’s Fair in Chicago. This was the big turning point for Grace and her artwork. Her reputation was well and truly established, and from then on she photographed and documented all her oil paintings for posterity. One of the reasons for doing this was for copyright reasons as other artists had tried to copy her most popular paintings.
According to Patricia Trenton, in her 1995 book, Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945:
“… Hudson could not paint her portraits fast enough to meet the growing demand. One magazine of the time reported that no other artist today is so popular with the picture-loving public of San Francisco. A canvas from her brush is sold before it leaves her easel…”
By the start of the twentieth century, Grace Carpenter Hudson’s national reputation as a talented artist had been achieved and she became the main breadwinner of the family but all her hard work up to this point had taken a toll on her health and in 1901 she decided to take a year out and relax in the serenity of the Hawaiian Islands. Whilst there, she completed 26 canvases of Japanese, Chinese, and Hawaiian natives. In that same year, John Hudson gave up his medical career and dedicated himself exclusively to ethnography and on her return from Hawaii, Grace travelled widely with her husband, as he documented many other Indian tribes including the Pawnee in Oklahoma Territory. During their journeys Grace continued to paint portraits of the tribespeople but, sadly, many of her paintings of this time were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire which devastated parts of California.
In 1912 Grace and John moved into a Hopi style house in Ukiah, known as the Sun House, and except for a brief trip to Europe in 1925, the couple lived there for the rest of their lives. Grace had a beautiful studio which incorporated an intricate system of moveable skylights. It was in her Ukiah studio that Grace invited members of the Pomo tribe to model for her paintings.
John Hudson died on January 18th, 1936, aged 79. After his death, Grace stopped painting. Grace Carpenter Hudson died on March 23rd 1937, a month after her seventy-second birthday. The couple had no children and all their money and property went to a nephew, Mark, who turned their home, along with thirty thousand objects into the Grace Hudson Museum. The objects consisted of paintings and the vast Pomo basket collection which had belonged to John Hudson.
Grace Hudson’s painting diary, which she started in 1891, came to an end in 1935 and in it, she recorded all 685 oil paintings she had completed during that time.
I found a lot of information about the life of Grace Carpenter Hudson in an article written by Karen Holmes entitled:
The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Grace Hudson’s Little Mendocino and Its Many Copies
In April 1893, Elizabeth and Louise Nourse returned to Cincinnati as they had become aware that their sister Adelaide was seriously ill with consumption. At this time there were just the three sisters left of the original ten children, the other seven already having died. Adelaide never recovered from the wasting disease and died on September 12th 1893, aged 33. This was a devastating loss to Elizabeth as she had been very close to her twin, and used to regularly correspond with her whilst they lived on two different continents. Elizabeth now had no family connections in America and decided that her home from then on would be Paris. For Elisabeth and her elder sister, Louise Nourse, Paris offered them a better standard of living as the cost of living was less than that in America.
Before their return journey back to France, the assistant director of the Cincinnati Museum, Joseph H. Gest, invited Elizabeth to exhibit her work. In the Cincinnati exhibition, she had 102 of her paintings on show that she had painted whilst living in Europe and she managed to sell eighteen of them. Later at a smaller exhibition in Washington DC, she exhibited sixty-one of the same works and sold a further twenty-one. After Washington, they spent a week in New York before boarding a ship for England where they rested over briefly before travelling to Paris.
In the summer of 1894, following their return to France, Elisabeth and her sister Louise travelled to Brittany and visited the art colony of Pont Aven. However, Elisabeth decided that rather than live within the bustling colony she and her sister should find a much quieter location where she was able to detach herself from others in a small village which would allow her to paint alone. During their visits to the area, the two women would often find board and lodgings at a convent in the hamlet of Saint-Gildas where Elisabeth reckoned the daily cost of living was just one dollar.
Elisabeth and Louise returned to Paris in the autumn of 1894 and took over a studio at 80 rue d’Assas which was to be their home for the rest of their lives. The studio which was situated opposite the south-west corner of the Luxembourg Gardens was in a quarter which housed a number of artist’s studios and was also home to many American expatriates. A couple of roads away from Elisabeth’s studio was rue de Chevreuse where the American Women Artists Association of Paris had its club and in 1899 Elizabeth served as its president. Elisabeth founded another artistic group, known as the Lodge Art League, which held annual exhibitions of paintings done by women. It was a female-only group as female artists believed they were not getting a “fair shout” when it came to main-line exhibitions and so they started to organise their own independent shows.
Orientalist painting, depicting the Middle East, had become one of the many specialisms of 19th-century academic art and became very popular in France in the last decade of the nineteenth century, so much so that in 1893, the French Society of Orientalist Painters was founded. In 1897, Elisabeth and Louise Nourse spent three months in North Africa in the Algerian city of Biskra. Elizabeth described North Africa as “the land of sunshine and flowers and lovely Arabs.” and in 1897 completed a painting entitled Moorish Prince (Head of an Algerian).
At the start of the twentieth century Elizabeth Nourse and her elder sister (by six years) Louise were living in Paris but they would often escape the hustle and bustle of city life. They discovered the quiet countryside idyll of Saint Leger–en Yvelines, a village in the heart of the Rambouillet forest, fifty-five kilometres south-west of central Paris. They lived there in a simple cottage rented to them by the Lethias family. Elizabeth’s love of the countryside and rural life inspired her art. It was this “back to nature” aspect of her stay in the countryside that she enjoyed so much and this can be seen in her paintings of the time. One I particularly like is her 1902 work, Meditation (Sous les Arbres), which is housed in the Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska. It depicts a mother seated in a chair in the garden. Her chin is resting on her hand and there is an air of tiredness about her, but not enough to stop her amusing her young child who sits on the grass at her feet.
In the ten years up to 1904 Elizabeth Nourse concentrated on rural themes, not the depiction of the beautiful country landscapes but depictions of peasant women getting on with their daily lives, working hard bringing up their children, and finally, at the end of the day, taking a chance to have a well-earned rest as can be seen in her 1904 work entitled Un Heure de Loisir (A Time of Leisure).
Elizabeth Nourse’s depictions of peasant women and their children had a sense of realism, which was not always appreciated by art dealers. A good example of this is her 1900 painting, Normandy Peasant Womanand Child. In this work, Nourse has concentrated on the child but it is the contrasting of mother and child, which is most interesting. Look at the way she has depicted the woman’s rough, reddened hand, which wraps around the child’s waist, with that of the soft skin of the child’s pudgy hands. This ruddy-faced depiction of the woman was viewed by the art dealers as something which would put off potential buyers and they often urged Elizabeth to make her depictions more “pretty” and thus, in their minds, more “saleable”. Needless to say, Nourse disagreed with their summation. In Anna Seaton Schmidt’s book, Elizabeth Nourse: The Work of an Eminent Artist in France, she quoted Elizabeth as saying to one dealer:
“…”How can I paint what does not appeal to me?…”
Elizabeth Nourse had her drawings, watercolours and pastels regularly shown at the Salon as well as her works in oils but it was her works on paper that first brought her recognition there. In 1901 she was elected societaire (member) in that category and in 1904 a societaire in oil painting as well. This was a great honour and more importantly, it meant that her work was no longer juried prior to being accepted and that she herself could also serve as a Salon juror. This official approval by the Salon meant that her reputation spread and she received an increasing number of invitations to exhibit her work. An example of her drawings is her 1906 work entitled The Kiss (Le Baiser). It is a pastel and charcoal on paper, mounted on board and is housed at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (The Clark) in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It is such a delicate and loving portrayal of a mother and her child. I don’t think I have seen such a depiction of tenderness in a long while.
In 1910 her painting Closed Shutters (Les Volets Clos) was exhibited at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Many of Elizabeth’s works around this time showed how she was fascinated by the depiction of light, whether it be daylight or lamplight or firelight. In this painting we see bright sunlight streaming through wooden louvred window shutters into a dimly lit room. In the room we see a woman standing before a mirror. It is a masterful depiction of light and one of Nourse’s most famous work of art which was bought in 1910 by French Ministry of Fine Arts for its permanent collection of contemporary art to hang in the Musee du Luxembourg alongside works by other great American artists such as James McNeil Whistler, Winslow Homer, and John Singer Sargent. It is now part of the Musee d’Orsay collection in Paris.
After the success of her painting Closed Shutters she completed another impressionistic work which experimented and focused on the way the sunlight plays on different surfaces. In La reverie (Daydreaming) we see a woman, posed by her sister Louise, standing before an open window, lost in thought, as she stares down at a glass goldfish bowl. The interior is illuminated by the bright sunlight so much so that part of the interior where the woman stands and the exterior seem to be as one. The reflection of the woman can be seen in the glass of the open window frame behind her. Nourse executed the work using ingenious strokes of blue, green, and violet, and it reveals the skill Elizabeth showed when showing the multifaceted reflecting elements of glass and water. The style of painting was likened to decorativeintimism, a style of painting showing intimate views of domestic interiors using impressionist techniques, a style used in the early 20th century by the likes of her contemporaries the French Post-Impressionist painter, Pierre Bonnard and the American Impressionist painter, Richard Miller who was a member of the Giverny Colony of American Impressionists.
In the fourteen year period before the onset of The Great War, Elizabeth Nourse was at the pinnacle of her artistic career which had started back in 1874 for the, then fifteen-year-old McMicken School art student. But with war, came change. The art scene changed. Art dealers in the major cities of the western world became ever more important with their regular exhibitions, diminishing the importance of the Paris Salon. The Germans had invaded Belgium in 1914 and France became a potential target causing almost all of the American expatriates to return to the safety of their homeland on the other side of the Atlantic. However, Elizabeth and her sister decided to stay in the French capital. In a letter to a friend back in Cincinnati in December 1914, Elizabeth wrote nonchalantly about her thoughts on a possible German invasion:
‘…We shall stick it out and retire to the cellar…”
On August 22nd Louise Nourse also wrote a letter to her friend Melrose Pitman in Cincinnati explaining how the sisters had come to the decision to stay in Paris:
“…All the Americans are going but we will stay right here. I should feel an ungrateful wretch to run away—as though I fled from some hospitable roof when smallpox breaks out…”
Not only did the two sisters remain in Paris but they actively supported the people of Paris who had to deal with the influx of Belgium refugees fleeing the conflict in their country. With the collapse of the market for works of art, Elizabeth set about trying to help struggling artists to survive by appealing to her friends in America to donate funds. They worked tirelessly, so much so they both became ill and their doctor ordered them to leave Paris for a while and convalesce in the countryside.
The two travelled to the coastal farming commune of Penmarc’h in Western Brittany. On arrival, they were shocked and saddened to discover that over sixty village women had been widowed by the war and all the remaining able-bodied men had had to leave the area for they had been conscripted to fight in the war. The lack of men in the commune meant that the women left behind not only had to care for their home and remaining family members but also had to cope with all the farm work. Louise and Elizabeth immediately set about helping the local women. An article by their friend Anna Seaton Schmidt in the September 2nd edition of the Boston Evening Post quotes from a letter Elizabeth Nourse had sent to a friend in Cincinnati:
“…It is quite a sight to see us bringing in the cows and tossing the hay, besides feeding ducks, chickens and picking beet and cabbage leaves for the cattle…”
In 1919, the year after the Great War had concluded, the board of the New Salon presented Elizabeth with a silver plaque in grateful recognition for this work during the war.
The following year, 1920, Elizabeth became unwell and it was discovered that she had breast cancer. She underwent surgery but it left her seriously debilitated and prevented her from standing at the easel for long periods. When it was time to proffer a painting for the 1921 Salon she had nothing recently painted to give them and so put forward some works she had completed years earlier.
That year, 1921, she was honoured with the Laetare Medal, given annually to a Catholic layperson for distinguished service to humanity by the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The award ceremony was presided over by the Papal Nuncio in Paris, and the Paris edition of the New York Herald referred to Elizabeth Nourse as “the dean of American women painters in France and one of the most eminent contemporary artists of her sex” and the Chicago Tribune simply referred to her as “the first woman painter of America”. Elizabeth, although pleased to receive the award, did not like the comment by either of the newspapers. She spoke of it to her friend Anna Seaton Schmidt telling her that she wanted to be judged as an artist, not as a woman.
Her health continued to deteriorate and by 1924, at the age of sixty-five, she had given up exhibiting at the Salon. In 1937 Elizabeth was devastated when her sister and life-long companion Louise died, aged 84. The loss of her beloved sister caused her health to worsen further and eighteen months after her sister died, on October 8th 1938, Elizabeth passed away and she and her sister were buried next to each other in their beloved Saint Leger–en Yvelines. Her remaining paintings housed in her studio were returned to Cincinnati.
Most of the information on the life of Elizabeth Nourse I have used is taken from Elizabeth Nourse: Cincinnati’s Most Famous Woman Artist an essay by Mary Alice Heekin Burke.
My featured artist today is the American realist-style genre, portrait and landscape painter Elizabeth Nourse, who was hailed by her fellow artists as “the first woman painter of America”. She was an artist in an era when female painters were put down as simply “Sunday Painters” whose art was a mere hobby and would never lead to anything. It was just something for them to do whilst they waited to marry a rich gentleman or if marriage did not come a-calling, then they could always teach.
An American journalist and advocate of women’s rights, Boston-born, Mary Livermore, wrote a book in 1883 warning women not to simply hope for a good man to rescue them. In her book, What Shall We Do With Our Daughters? Superfluous Women and Other Lectures, she wrote:
“…one of the most serious dangers to which inefficient women are liable, the danger of regarding marriage as a means of livelihood. The theory is that all men support all women, but some men are incompetent, some are invalids, some are dissolute, and some die leaving their wives destitute…”
If Elizabeth was to teach or marry and dedicate herself to bringing up a family then the chance of producing a large and varied body of work was very unlikely. With this prevalent jaundiced male attitude of a woman’s place being in the home with her children, one soon realises a female artist had to go it alone and be very determined to overcome the prejudices of male exhibition jurists and male art critics, both of whom they had to curry favour with. Also, later, when she was living in Paris, as a woman she did not have the friendship-bonding/support of the café culture that aspiring male artists had, but thankfully, she was helped by strong family support, especially her elder sister Louise, together with a large network of female friends, including Anna Seaton Schmidt.
Elizabeth Nourse was born to Caleb Nourse and Elizabeth Lebreton Rogers Nourse, both descendants of pioneer New England families who were married in Cincinnati in 1833. Elizabeth came into this world on October 26th, 1859 at Mount Healthy, Ohio. Mount Healthy was a small village north of Cincinnati, originally called Mount Pleasant, but in 1850 was so named as during a cholera epidemic in 1849 the citizens of the village survived while those in the surrounding territory did not, in fact, four per cent of Cincinnati’s population died of the disease. She and her twin sister Adelaide were the youngest of ten children, four sons, and six daughters, and they were brought up in a Catholic family. Cincinnati’s location on the Ohio River was a great trade hub for North to South and East to West trade and this brought in a large number of European immigrants. At the time Elizabeth was born, Cincinnati had become the sixth biggest city in America. Elizabeth’s father, Caleb Nourse, prospered with the boom and became a banker. However, with the onset of the Civil War in 1861, the movement of goods on the Ohio River was badly disrupted and the four-year war brought a disastrous financial decline to Cincinnati and Caleb’s bank failed.
Elizabeth and her twin, Adelaide, at the age of fifteen, went to classes at the McMicken School of Design in Cincinnati, which was open to all qualified residents, tuition-free, while her next eldest sister Louise became a teacher. The McMicken School of Design had been founded by Cincinnati resident, and real estate millionaire, Charles McMicken. In the 1850’s he donated one million dollars to the city of Cincinnati to form a university. Originally known as McMicken University, a month after the college’s founding, the university’s board of directors changed the institution’s name to the University of Cincinnati and this institution absorbed the McMicken School of Drawing and Design.
The head of the Drawing and Design School was an American painter, Thomas Satterwhite Noble. and the McMicken School of Design later became the present-day Art Academy of Cincinnati.
Elizabeth embarked on the full curriculum and took drawing and painting courses for five years whilst also training in sculpture. Elizabeth’s twin sister Adelaide just studied wood carving and china painting in the classes which had been started by Benn Pitman, a widower whom she later married in 1882 when she was twenty-three and he was sixty. It should be remembered that except for a few months’ studies in New York and later in Paris at the Académie Julian her artistic style was formed at the McMicken School of Design in Cincinnati. Elizabeth’s early interest was the lives of poor rural workers of the Midwest, especially the hardships endured by women at work who struggled to raise a family.
Once she had completed her course at the School of Design in 1880, she was offered a position at the School as a teacher but she declined the offer, as she wanted to continue with her own art and be recognised as a painter and not a teacher! This was certainly a gamble as she had to help financially support her sisters and teaching would have given her a secure income. However, after her graduation in 1880, she returned to the School to study for two years in the first life class offered to women only.
Both of Elizabeth’s parents died in 1880 and with her twin sister Adelaide married and living in her own home, Elizabeth, accompanied by sister, Louise decided to move to New York where, having received funding from one of her patrons, she enrolled on courses at the Art Students League in New York City and studied briefly under William Sartain, an American painter who had spent a number of years in Paris. She also met the famed Impressionist painters William Merritt Chase and Julian Alden Weir. She left New York the following year and returned to Cincinnati where she earned money as a home decorator and portrait painter and by selling her pen and ink sketches of local buildings and submitting illustrations to various magazines. Nourse was able to spend a couple of summers during the following years making watercolour paintings in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee.
In August 1887, with the money she had made from her various jobs, Elizabeth, aged twenty-eight, and her elder sister, Louise aged thirty-four, left the shores of America for Europe and the art capital of the world, Paris. She and Louise rented a studio apartment on Paris’ Left Bank. Louise played a very important role in her sister’s life acting as her companion, housekeeper, and later, secretary, and business manager. Having settled in the French capital, Elizabeth enrolled at the renowned Académie Julian and studied under master painters Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre. However, she only remained at the Académie for three months for they advised her that as her artistic ability was of such a high standard she needed no more tuition. After leaving the Académie she set up her own studio and began on a painting, which she wanted to submit to the Salon jurists.
In 1888 her painting, La mère (The Mother) was completed and it was accepted at that year’s Salon. Not only was it accepted by the Salon jury, but they also had it placed “on the line”, meaning that it was hung at eye-level, which was quite a prominent position for an unknown artist. The work of art came with no anecdotal details, which would identify the depiction. Elizabeth Nourse did not want this to be a depiction of a specific person with a background story. This work did not relate it to a specific relationship. She wanted this to be about every mother’s feeling, that of fondness and love for their precious baby. As good as the work was and despite it being highly praised by the critics it did not sell. In fact, it did not sell for seven years despite it being exhibited in five different exhibitions. It was finally bought in 1894 whilst being exhibited in a Washington DC exhibition. One interesting fact about the painting and that of most of her early works was that she signed it “E. Nourse”. Elizabeth felt it would be received more favourably by the Salon jury and the art critics if they did not know she was a woman!! By 1891 her reputation as an artist had risen considerably and she felt it time to sign her paintings with her full name.
In the summer of 1888, Elizabeth Nourse took the opportunity to leave the city of Paris and explore the French countryside. She explored the Fontainebleau Forest area and the small commune of Barbizon, a place made famous in the mid-1800’s by its artist colony. She fell in love with the rural landscape of the country.
Another woman who played an important role in Elizabeth’s life was Anna Seaton Schmidt. Anna was a successful writer and lecturer on art and wrote passionate articles about Nourse and her art for international art periodicals and American newspapers. She would often meet up with Elizabeth and Louise in Paris and went with them on painting trips throughout Europe. In the summer of 1889 Anna, Louise and Elizabeth travelled north from Paris to Picardy and visited the Etaples art colony, and it was in that year that Elizabeth Nourse completed a work, whilst at Etaples, entitled Fisher Girl of Picardy. Of the painting and the day, Anna Schmidt commented:
“…I was with Elizabeth when she painted that girl on the Etaples Dunes—it was so cold and windy the model used to weep…”
The setting for this en plein air painting was the windswept dunes of Etaples. The cold blustery weather at the time of the painting probably was the cause of the model’s pink cheeks and why the small boy clutches the girl’s hand and tries to gain some shelter from the wind by staying within the folds of the girl’s skirt. The girl stands, head aloft, holding some fishing gear as she looks out towards the stormy ocean.
Although based in Paris Elizabeth and Louise travelled extensively, spending time in Russia and Italy. The two sisters spent eighteen months in Rome during 1889 and 1890 and it was during her Italian sojourn that Elizabeth received an invitation from Paris to join the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts (New Salon), one of two important Salons at the time, which was organized by the modern French artists, such as Rodin and Puvis de Chavannes. It was a rebellious act in reaction to the conservative standards of the established artists who made up the jury of the Old Salon. Elizabeth was the second American woman elected a member of this auspicious art society. Her acceptance was a risk as if this New Salon did not get the acceptance by the art world, which it desired then she may never become a Salon painter.
Whilst in Italy Louise and Elizabeth travelled to Assisi where they spent six weeks and during this time Elizabeth completed a couple of religious paintings, one of which was her 1890 work entitled The Church of St. Francis of Assisi.
When their time in Italy came to an end Elizabeth and Louise headed back to Paris via Austria. It was a tiring journey over the mountains, part of which was by ox cart. They passed through the Austrian mountain village of Borst, which must have impressed them as they rested there for six weeks and during this time Elizabeth produced her painting, Peasant Women of Borst. This work is now housed in the Cincinnati Museum of Art. The two sisters finally arrived back in Paris during the winter of 1891.
Whether it was the restless nature of the women or just their love of travel but by the summer of 1892 they were all packed and off once again on their travels. This time their destination was Holland. Although this was a painting trip it was also a chance to catch up with some friends and fellow expatriates from Cincinnati, the Wachman sisters, who had a studio in Volendam. The Dutch village of Volendam in the late 19th, and the early 20th century had developed as an artist colony. Elizabeth and Henriette Wachman had been fellow students at McMicken School of Design. Resulting from her stay in Volendam was her painting entitled In the Church at Volendam……………….
…………………to be continued
A great deal of information for this blog came from a very good and thoroughly researched article: Elizabeth Nourse: Cincinnati’s Most Famous Woman Artist by Mary Alice Heekin Burke.