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 Woman and 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 decorative intimism, 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.