Elizabeth Nourse, The “First Woman Painter of America”
Judging by her representation at the Cincinnati Museum of Art, Elizabeth Nourse is the Queen Artist of The Queen City- Cincinnati, Ohio. On a recent museum visit, I was thrilled to find two gallery walls dominated by her work, not surprising considering the museum has 32 of her works in their permanent collection!
Though she spent much of her career in France, Nourse hails from Cincinnati, Ohio. She was so respected as an artist, even in her own time, that in 1893 the Cincinnati Museum of Art director invited her for a major exhibition of her work, 102 paintings in all. Featured in multiple smaller shows during the intervening years, 90 years later, in 1983, the Cincinnati museum hosted, “A Salon Career,” a comprehensive survey exhibition of her work, that also traveled to the Smithsonian Museum of Art in Washington DC.
La Prima Communione, 1895, Elizabeth Nourse
Nourse, the youngest of ten, was born a twin, with sister Adelaide, on October 26, 1859 in Mount Healthy, Ohio. Only three of her siblings survived into adulthood, and Elizabeth’s older sister, Louise became her lifelong companion, business manager, housekeeper and hostess…the live-in facilitator we all wish we had!
Nourse’s art education began at the McMicken School of Design in Cincinnati. She quickly excelled, receiving critical acclaim, though sometimes it was a backhanded compliment. One journalist said,
“Unless all signs fail, or she marries and buries herself in oblivion, the world will hear more of this girl.”
Fisher Girl of Picardy, 1889, Elizabeth Nourse
As a female artist, Elizabeth Nourse made the choice that many exceptional women in history have; to forgo marriage and children. With her sister Louise, Elizabeth was blessed with a partner for art and life. John Singer Sargent had Nicola D’Iverno, Rosa Bonheur had Anna Klumpke and, with her sister Louise’s help, Elizabeth could be single-minded in her pursuit of painting excellence.
Upon graduation, she bravely turned down a teaching position and chose the career path of professional artist. With money from healthy painting sales and the chaperonage of wealthy patrons, Elizabeth was able to travel, accompanied by Louise, as an unmarried woman to paint in New York, Paris, Italy, Russia and even to the remote village of Borst, Austria; accessible only by ox-cart. She studied for one term at the Art Student’s League in NYC, where she met William Merrit Chase. She also completed her studies quickly at the Académie Julian in Paris. This school for women provided three drawing options for women artists. Nourse took advantage of the full nude figure classes. There was also draped nude study and even a separate entrance for modest amateurs, offended by a nude model!
La Mére, 1888, Elizabeth Nourse
Success came early in Paris, when Nourse’s first Salon entry, La Mére, was accepted by the Société Nationale des Artists Français with the extreme honor of hanging “on the line,” at eye level on the crowded Salon wall. This success prompted Nourse to start signing "Elizabeth" to paintings rather than the ambiguously gendered “E”. It would be 7 years and 5 more exhibits, though, before the much-lauded La Mére, sold for the handsome sum of $300.
In Paris, Nourse befriended Mary Cassatt and served as president of two women’s art organizations; American Women Artists Association of Paris and the Lodge Art League. Success continued in Paris when Les Volets Clos (Closed Shutters), for which Louise modeled, was purchased from the 1910 Salon for the French Government’s Contemporary Collection.
The Nourse sisters also spent significant time in the French countryside. As members of the Third Order of St. Francis, empathy for the working class and acts of charity and were part of their daily lives. The depth of understanding in Nourse’s paintings was gained from laboring alongside her models; peasant women and children; in their homes, on their farms and at their bedsides when they fell ill.
Even when the First World War broke out and expatriates left France, the Nourse sisters stayed, working tirelessly for refugees flooding into Paris. They raised money for clothing, coal and food and also helped war-wives and widows work their farms.
Head of an Algerian, 1897, Elizabeth Nourse
When, in 1921, Elizabeth Nourse received the University of Notre Dame Laetare Medal for Distinguished Service to Humanity, the Chicago Tribune called her the “First Woman Painter of America.”
By the time Nourse was diagnosed with the breast cancer that ultimately took her life, her prolific art career had spanned 45 years. In 1924, she comfortably retired from exhibiting, but continued painting. Elizabeth passed away at the age of 79 in 1938, one year after her beloved sister.
Elizabeth Nourse forged a highly successful art career on two continents, working, living and traveling; painting, exhibiting and selling powerful representational art informed by the empathy she had for her ordinary and noble, hardworking subjects.