Elizabeth Nourse. Part 2.

Elizabeth Nourse
(1859-1938)

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.

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

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.

L’enfant endormi by Elisabeth Nourse (1901)

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.

Little Sister by Elizabeth Nourse (1902)

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.

Head of an Algerian by Elizabeth Nourse (1897)

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).

Meditation (Sous les Arbres) by Elizabeth Nourse (1902

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.

Un Heure de Loisir by Elizabeth Nourse (1900)

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).

Normandy Peasant Woman and her Child by Elizabeth Nourse (1900)

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?…”

The Kiss (Le Baiser) by Elizabeth Nourse (c.1906)

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.

The Closed Shutters (also known as Les Volets Clos) by Elizabeth Nourse (1910)

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.

La reverie by Elizabeth Nourse (1910)

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.

Woman with cigarette by Elizabeth Nourse (1895)

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…”

Woman with cigarette by Elizabeth Nourse (1895)

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.

Le frère et la soeur, Penmarc’h by Elisabeth Nourse (1901)

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.

Artist in her studio

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.

Happy Days by Elizabeth Nourse (1905)

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.

 

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.