Elizabeth Nourse. Part 1.

Self portrait by Elizabeth Nourse (1892)

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…”

Flock of Geese by Elizabeth Nourse (c.1883)

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.

Etude by Elizabeth Nourse (1892)

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.

Charles McMickenElizabeth 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.

Thomas Satterwhite Noble

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.

Portrait of a Lady by Elizabeth Nourse (1888)

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.

Tennessee Woman by Elizabeth Nourse (1895)

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.

La mère” (The Mother), by Elizabeth Nourse (1888)

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.

Fisher Girl of Picardy by Elizabeth Nourse (1889)

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.

The Church of St. Francis of Assisi by Elizabeth Nourse (1890)

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.

Peasant Women of Borst by Elizabeth Nourse (1891)

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.

In the Church at Volendam by Elizabeth Nourse (1892)

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.

Cecilia Beaux. Part 4 – The Parisian student and past and present romantic problems.

Cecilia Beaux and Enna Leavitt reading in their studio on Chestnut Street,
Philadelphia. Photograph, 1889-90.

………………….the year is 1887 and Cecilia still worked in her Chestnut Street studio completing many portraits. The pinnacle of this year as far as Cecilia was concerned was the exhibiting of her painting, Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance, at that year’s Paris Salon. This portrait of her sister and her nephew had been a labour of love and had taken two years to complete. It was not just its inclusion at the Salon which had excited her but as she looked at her returned painting, it was the thought of life in Paris which excited her. In her autobiography she recalled how she felt at that time:

“… After months it came back to me, bearing the French labels and number, in the French manner, so fraught with emotion to many hearts. I sat endlessly before it, longing for some revelation of the scenes through which it had passed; the drive under the sky of Paris, the studio of the great French artist, where his eye had actually rested on it, and observed it. The handling by employees; their French voices and speech; the propos of those who decided its placing; the Gallery, the French crowd, which later I was to know so well…”

Cecilia Beaux and May Whitlock (1888)

She decided that she had to go and sample life in France, especially Paris. Her family were a little disconcerted about her proposed adventure, but they realised that as a thirty-two-year-old woman it was her decision. Her uncle William Biddle helped part finance the journey and sorted out a ticket for her ocean-going passage, passport, and letter of credit. He also persuaded a cousin of Cecilia, May Whitlock, to accompany her on the trip.

Cecilia also received a “farewell gift” from her good friend and fellow artist, Henry Thuron, who had once proposed to her. He gave her a set of monochrome drawings of paintings Cecilia was likely to see and sketch in the Louvre which could be used as preparation sketches or as she referred to them – ‘Springboards for the Galleries’.

S.S. Nordland

Cecilia and May Whitlock boarded the steamship Nordland in New York in January 1888 for a voyage which would terminate in Antwerp. The sea passage across the Atlantic Ocean was not a pleasant one. The vessel was battered by gales and bobbed unceremoniously on the ferocious sea, with many of the passengers, including the two women suffering from mal de mer for the first week of their journey. It took twelve days to reach their Belgium destination, arriving in Antwerp in late January on a freezing cold day with the dockside covered in snow.

Descent from the Cross by Rubens (1612-14)

Despite the inclement Belgium weather Cecilia and May managed to do some sightseeing and visited The Cathedral of Our Lady where she saw the Rubens triptych Descent from the Cross. She was mesmerised by Rubens work, writing in her autobiography, Background with Figures:

“…No one who has not met the material opposition of pigment and its allies can gauge Rubens’s power to command it. What his religious compositions lack in the subtler side of holiness, they gain in the presentment of human emotion, as it appears, humble, adoring, and abandoned to sorrow, even in the ignorant gazing upon the uncomprehended manifestations of Divinity…”

The two ladies visited Brussels and their stay in Belgium lasted just three days before they set off by train for Paris, arriving at the Gare du Nord during the last week of January 1888, where they were met by another of their cousins. The ladies moved into a pension at 12 rue Boccador, which was situated between the Seine, where it is crossed by the Pont de l’Alma, and the Champs-Élysée.  Their room at the pension was by no means salubrious but worse still it was cold and damp. Cecilia described their circumstances:

“…Our room was, of course, unheated, though it had a pretty chimney-piece and a clock, and what heat the previous summer had left behind had died long since between the closed windows and door. I was not pampered, and of course Steam heat was unknown to me at home. Our house had a small furnace, whose efforts were entirely devoted to the aged, the invalid, or the very young, but I had never known the damp, penetrating chill of never-heated houses in winter. Of course, a wood fire was impossible for us, but they wheeled us in a Schoubersky, a black charcoal stove, which could travel from room to room and never demand a chimney. Our chimney was a very retiring one, but with the Schoubersky approximately near it, we might avoid suffocation…”

Mother and Daughter by Cecilia Beaux (1898)
This was a portrait of Mrs. Clement Griscom and Frances C. Griscom.
Frances Canby Griscom was an American amateur golfer from Philadelphia and the daughter of shipping magnate Clement Griscom who owned the 7,000-acre hunting plantation in Bradfordville north of Tallahassee, Florida

Soon after her arrival Cecilia enrolled at the Académie Julian. The Académie Julian was a private liberal art school, founded in 1868 by Rodolphe Julian, a painter and art administrator and in his early days, a prize-fighter. The academy was especially popular with Americans, and several exponents of American Impressionism studied at the Julian. The École des Beaux-Arts was considered the premier Parisian art academy, but Cecilia could not enrol for study at that establishment as women were not accepted as students there and that ruling did not change until 1897.

The Studio by Maria Bashkirtseff (1881)
Maria Bashkirtseff was a student at the Académie Julian in 1887

The new Académie Julian accepted her. Because of its fine reputation, it soon became recognised as one of the best private art schools in Paris. Two decades after it first opened, the number of students attending courses at the establishment numbered about six hundred and it necessitated the opening of four more branches, one of which was in the 8th arrondissement at No. 5 Rue de Berri where Cecilia Beaux studied.

Tony Robert Fleury

Her first assignment at the Académie Julian was to produce a full-length drawing which would be commented upon by the tutor. Her tutor was Tony Robert Fleury, the French historical painter. She remembered how nervous she was when he entered the room. She wrote:

“…’Tony’ — that is Tony Robert Fleury — was to criticise that week, and at the hour entered a young-middle aged and very handsome man, with a face in which there were deep marks of disappointment; his eyes, grey and deeply set, smouldered with burnt-out fires. How un-American they were! As I observed him from behind my easel, I felt that I had touched for the first time the confines of that which made France and Paris a place of pilgrimage. Into the room with him came something, not perhaps a quality of his own, but of what he had come from and lived in. The class, although accustomed to him, was in a nutter. I was still and icy with terror, fearing other qualms that I might not understand him and blunder hideously…”

There were no exhibitions held at the Académie, but a regular routine was set which awarded the best students with prime painting positions in the atelier. Cecilia described the routine:

“…Every week subjects for composition were given out. The compositions were handed in on a Saturday, and the student who had produced the best in the opinion of ‘le Maitre’ had the privilege of first choice of place on Monday morning, for the new pose. This, in such a crowded room, was an immense advantage, but punctuality was also the price, for without it one’s chance was given to the next. I had the good luck to win it pretty often…”

Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt

The students would often have to copy biblical scenes and one of the earliest tests was to copy the painting Supper at Emmaus, Cecilia had already seen Rembrandt’s version of the work at the Salon Carré in the Louvre and so what she produced was an imitation of that of the Dutch Master. The efforts of all the students were placed on the walls of the atelier prior to the inspection by Fleury. Cecilia recalled what happened next:

“…He stood growling before them with folded arms. Pointing to mine, he said savagely, ‘Qui est-ce qui a fait ca?’ [Who did that?]
Mdlle C. dragged me out and thrust me, quaking, before him, for he was often bitterly ironical.
‘Humph,’ he said, ‘c’’est vu?  Je n’ai pas vu les autres, mais je sais bien que c’est la meilleure.’ [I have not seen the others, but I know it’s the best]…”

Within weeks of Cecilia and her cousin arriving in the French capital they had joined up with a group of expatriate artists including Florence Este, Gabrielle Clement, and Margaret Lesley Bush-Brown, who were all friends of Cecilia’s from the Pennsylvania Academy.

In Philadelphia, Cecilia’s love life never really took off despite the amorous attentions of suitors such as Henry Thuron who always put his rejection of marriage down to being both Catholic and poor!  It was Henry who had given Cecilia the monochrome drawings on oil-sketch boards in preparation of her sketching visits to the Louvre. She wrote to him just prior to her ocean voyage, letting him down gently:

“…try to be my friend still……………….I am going to keep your beautiful gift to prove how much I desire this — and for the roses I never thought there could be so much pain with such beauty and sweetness…”

 

Portraits in Summer by Cecilia Beaux (1911)
This is a double portrait of Beaux’s nephew, Henry Sandwith Drinker, and his wife, Sophie Hutchinson Drinker. Henry was the son of Cecilia’s sister, Etta and her husband Henry Sturgiss Drinker. The painting was painted at Cecilia Beaux’s home (Green Alley) in Gloucester, Mass. during the couple’s honeymoon. Looking through the portico one can see sky, water, and sailboats in the distance.

During her stay in Paris she did enjoy the company of men and although she did go out with a couple of suitors, she would never commit to them. There was Leonard W. Bacon, a doctor whom she may have met four years earlier in Philadelphia when she sketched a posthumous portrait of his father. When his wife died he had, unbeknown to her, cast his eyes towards Cecilia as a possible “substitute”. He was on a visit to Paris in June 1888 and met up with her and had great hopes for their future and a replacement for his much-loved, late wife, Sarah. Unfortunately for him, he looked on Cecilia’s art as a mere hobby and something that would be forgotten when she became his wife and mother to his children. On his return to Philadelphia the following month Bacon came across Cecilia’s aunt Emily and told her about his hopes with regards Cecilia. She was “flabbergasted” by his aspiration that Cecilia would become the new mother to his children and told him that in her mind, he had no chance of success with his plan. Emily told her husband William Biddle about the conversation and he thought the whole situation was hilarious. He wrote a letter to Cecilia on July 24th 1888 and in it he commented on Bacon’s misguided plans for Cecilia:

“…”my logical mind insists on including the other consequence, which he didn’t mention, of your being a grand mother to his young grand children, & then I roar, — every time — Oh! dear me!” Dr. Bacon had “fallen from the pedestal” on which the aunts had placed him, and the “interview” with Aunt Emily “sav[ed] Cecilia from all further worry and trouble from that source…”

Young Woman by Ceclia Beaux (1909)

A more serious romantic issue for Cecilia was one that had begun back in Philadelphia with Edwin Swift Balch. Balch was ideal husband material. He was young (a year younger than Cecilia). He was a wealthy bachelor and part of the Philadelphia elite. He painted miniatures and was a writer, scientist, and an authority on polar history and exploration. He had met Cecilia as he had a studio in the same building in Philadelphia as Cecilia’s, and the tender shoots of romance began to appear. However, whilst in France, Cecilia realised that her great passion for her art was far greater than her passion for Balch. This realisation caused her to review her life. The whole process must have caused her great heartache as witnessed in the letter she wrote to her uncle, William Biddle, on September 30th, 1888:

“…And now prepare your dear mind for the real and serious thing I have to say. You will not perhaps believe the struggle that it costs me — because I know that this is the real end. It is all over between me and Mr. Balch. It is not his fault, but I believe now that he is reconciled to it. He speaks of it as “the break which I foresaw” and at the end — “I have written more but tore it up as it is silly to reproach you.” He will never know how much I cared for him and still do. What I admired in him, what attracted me, and what I really loved — time and distance could not, and have not changed, but what was not satisfied has grown more imperative and for the first time I know that it will not do. I have expanded here and I could not get into the place I might have got into before. Though even then I should have had to stifle something. You will say that I ought to have known this before. That if I had listened to reason I should have saved many people much pain. To which I can only say that no one but myself can know how I clung to what I found in him. I know that it was selfish, but I hoped to make up for it. Of one thing I feel sure that he does not suffer now more than I do, and he has, as regards this side of life, a much more hopeful future than I. All the same I ought to have made the sacrifice and taken the risk of losing. Do not think I am not paying for it — that is all.
I am waiting anxiously now to hear what you think about my staying over here a few months longer. You will easily understand that now I wish to stay as never before. It would be very painful for me to go home now, and for him too. He would almost be driven away himself if I did. Besides I must allow to the weakness of its being safer for both of us. I am besides very anxious to paint something for next year’s Salon…”

Biddle was concerned with what he had read and on October 10th, 1888, wrote back to Cecilia:

“…You do flit about pretty fast, — physically, — & perhaps Emotionally — but I trust not morally or mentally. With those departments of one’s being it is wiser & safer to “go slow”…. In regard to Mr. B. I can only say that if you really feel sure about yourself we all rejoice in your decision, — & unless you were prepared to accept now, or at least very soon, it was your duty to so decide anyway. Even if you were not sure of yourself, — or were sure, the other way…. Judging from what you have written me, his attitude in the affair seems manly & dignified & raises him in my estimation. I’m sorry for him, — but do not think his life will suffer…. If there is no change in our family status at 4305, I can see no valid reason for your hurrying home in May or June & leaving the Salon & Exposition unseen or only half seen…”

…………………………..to be continued.

 


Most of the information for the blogs featuring Cecilia Beaux came from two books:
Background with Figures, the autobiography of Cecilia Beaux
Family Portrait by Catherine Drinker Bowen
and the e-book:
Out of the Background: Cecilia Beaux and the Art of Portraiture by Tara Leigh Tappert.

Extracts from letters to and from Cecilia Beaux came from The Beaux Papers held at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art

Information alsocame from the blog, American Girls Art Club In Paris. . . and Beyond, featuring Cecilia Beaux was also very informative and is a great blog, well worth visiting on a regular basis.:
https://americangirlsartclubinparis.com/tag/catherine-ann-drinker/

and

Cecilia Beaux: The Power of Paris (1888)