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.