Sunday, December 8, 2013

Elizabeth Nourse: Cincinnati's Most Famous Woman Artist (Part I)

written by Mary Alice Heekin Burke*

Elizabeth Nourse graduated from the School of Design of the University of Cincinnati in 1880, went to Paris in 1887 when she was twenty-eight years old, and lived there until her death in 1938. During her career she achieved all the honors to which an expatriate artist could aspire.

Elizabeth Nourse, Self-Portrait, 1892
She was the second American woman elected a member of the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts (hereafter the New Salon) one of two important Salons at the time. (The Salons were annual exhibitions of contemporary art held each spring in Paris, the international center of art during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They derived their popular name, Salon, from having been held in the Salon Carree at the Louvre when they were originated in the seventeenth century by the French government. After 1881 they were organized by French artists, the first of these being the
Societe Nationale des Artistes Francais (hereafter the Old Salon). Nourse showed her work in the Old Salon for two years until the New Salon was formed. The concept of the  commercial gallery was very new then so exposure at the Salon provided thousands of artists from all over the world their best opportunity to be noticed by important people—art critics, dealers, collectors—and gave them the experience of being compared with the leading contemporary artists. The exhibition was juried by famous artists and their acceptance of an art work gave it the guarantee of quality that collectors
and museum curators required to make their purchases.
Elizabeth Nourse . Head of a Girl, 1882
Nourse also won many awards in the international expositions: Chicago, Nashville, Paris, Saint Louis, and San Francisco. She was consistently invited to enter the annual juried exhibitions that were a prominent feature of the American art scene, at the Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts, the Carnegie Institute, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the Corcoran Gallery.

Elizabeth Nourse . Les Volets Clos
As a final accolade the French government bought her painting, Les Volets Clos for its permanent collection of contemporary art to hang in the Musee du Luxembourg with the work of such artists as Whistler, Winslow Homer, and Sargent.

Nourse's career parallels that of other expatriate artists of the pre-World War I period, but certain aspects of it are unique. With Mary Cassatt and Cecilia Beaux, she was one of the few women painters to achieve international recognition for her work and, like them, faced certain obstacles that male artists did not encounter. She first had to prove that she was a serious professional since most women painters eventually marry or become teachers and fail to produce a significant body of work.

To acquire professional status she had to be recognized by the all male juries of the Salons and
international exhibitions and to be favorably reviewed by the art critics, who also were mostly men. As a Victorian lady she could not easily advance her career by forming friendships in these groups, as a male artist could. The social interchange of the cafe, so much a part of the artistic life of Paris in her day, was denied her.

Elizabeth Nourse . The Little Sister, 1902
To compensate for these disadvantages, she always had the total support of her family and of a large network of women friends who admired her work, publicized it, and bought it. Unlike Cassatt, Nourse did not have an independent income nor did she teach, as Beaux did. Yet from 1883 until her death, a period of fifty-five years, she earned her living as a professional artist and supported her older sister, Louise, as well. She was also unusual among both men and women expatriates in being almost entirely American trained. Except for a few months' study in New York and later in Paris at the Academie Julian, her style was formed at the School of Design in Cincinnati.

Another problem women artists share is that their work has never commanded the market as has that of male artists since it is thought that they are not serious professionals. This means that their paintings tend to be found one to a collector making them difficult to evaluate, and that they have rarely been the subject of one-person exhibitions and catalogs that would bring their work to public notice.

Next: Elizabeth's Training

* in the Queen City Heritage magazine, Winter 1931 edition