Saturday, January 18, 2014

Elizabeth Nourse: Her Training (Part II)

from "Elizabeth Nourse: Cincinnati's Most Famous Woman Artist" by Mary Alice Heekin Burke in the Queen City Heritage magazine, Winter 1931

Elizabeth Nourse . Etude, 1891
Oil on canvas
"The life and work of Elizabeth Nourse was indeed fascinating. In 1859 she and her twin, Adelaide, were the last of ten children...The three youngest children, the twins and Louise, who was six years older than they, always knew that they must prepare to earn a living. Louise became a teacher, one of the few occupations open to educated women, and the twins studied at the School of Design at the University of Cincinnati which was open to all qualified residents tuition free. (It became part of the present Art Academy in 1887). Elizabeth undertook the full curriculum taking five years of drawing and painting and four years of training in sculpture.

Her painting teacher was Thomas S. Noble, the director of the school, who had studied under Thomas Couture in Paris for three years. One can see in Nourse's work the application of Couture's precepts that Noble passed on to his students—rapid sketching to capture the first fresh idea of a subject, firm drawing, and strong contrasts of light and shadow. She also studied wood carving, china painting, and engraving, and, after her graduation in 1881, returned to study for two years in the first life class offered to women only. During her school years a nude model was available solely for the male students.

Of the many women who supported Nourse, however, the two most important were her sister, Louise,
and her Cincinnati friend, Anna Seaton Schmidt. Louise was indispensable as her companion, housekeeper, secretary, and business manager and Anna served as her chief publicist. The latter was a successful writer and lecturer on art and wrote enthusiastic articles about Nourse for international art periodicals and for her newspapers in Cincinnati, Boston, and Washington, D.C. She frequently visited the Nourse sisters in Paris and joined them on painting trips to Picardy, Brittany, Italy, and Switzerland.

In 1880 both of Nourse's parents died, then Adelaide married, and the two sisters, Elizabeth and Louise, lived together and saved their money to finance further study for the artist in Paris. Elizabeth was offered a position as teacher of drawing at the School of Design when she graduated, but she refused because she was determined to be a professional artist. Her self-portrait demonstrates that she thought of herself primarily as a serious painter.

To reject the security of a teaching position was a courageous decision because she had to support herself and Louise so she earned money in a variety of ways—illustrating magazine articles, painting portraits and flower paintings, and executing murals for private homes.

Elizabeth Nourse . Mums in a Teapot, 1889

Nourse was unaware that her technique was sound enough that she would be able to compete successfully with other young artists in Paris. Her early Cincinnati works prove that she could already represent the weight and mass of a figure, place it realistically in space and light, and capture a convincing pose and facial expression. They also demonstrate the realism that seems to have been her natural form of expression from the beginning and the type of subject matter that appealed to her most - ordinary, hard-working women...

In August 1887 the Nourse sisters arrived in Paris where Elizabeth enrolled at the Academie Julian, one of three schools M. Julian organized where artists practiced drawing under the tutelage of Parisian masters. All three had separate studios for men and women because propriety forbade their sharing a class with a nude model and the women were charged exactly double what the men paid for half the instruction time. The justification for this was that the women were considered amateurs.

Elizabeth Nourse . "Woman with a Harp,"1887
Oil on canvas at the Cincinnati Art Museum
 After three months' study Nourse was advised that she needed no further instruction and she set to work preparing "La Mère" for the spring Salon.

Elizabeth Nourse . La Mère, 1888
Oil on canvas, 45 1/2 x 32 in.
at the Cincinnati Art Museum

This is a beautiful painting, but done in a more finished technique than any Nourse had painted previously, a style designed to appeal to the academic Salon jury. With small brushstrokes she carefully blended the tones and used rich, dark colors. The jury not only accepted it, but hung it "on the line," that is, at eye level, a special honor for an unknown artist.

Nourse was always able to express sincere emotion in such subjects and avoid sentimentality. Characteristically, she omitted any anecdotal details that would relate it to a specific mother and child and thereby infused it with a universal feeling, that of any mother's tenderness for her baby.

Elizabeth Nourse . Emerson, 8 Months
Black, white and red chalk, 10 1/8 x 13 1/8 in.

This was an auspicious beginning for the young artist in Paris, but the next important step was to sell her work. It is interesting to trace the history of "La Mère" to see how difficult this could be. It took seven years and exposure at five exhibitions to do so, presumably for $300. It was bought by Parker Mann, a local artist, at an exhibition in Washington, D.C. in 1894 and by 1914 hung in the Princeton
study of Woodrow Wilson, then governor of New Jersey, along with Mrs. Wilson's own paintings. Mann was the first of a number of artists who purchased Nourse's work evidence of the high regard she enjoyed among her fellow professionals.

The artist signed this work E. Nourse, as she did all her early paintings. She apparently felt it would be received more favorably by the Salon jury and the public if they did not know she was a woman. By 1891 she felt secure enough in her reputation to sign her full name on her Salon entries, and by 1904, this became her standard signature.

The Nourses made their headquarters in Paris for the next four years but they traveled widely. Elizabeth took her only trip without Louise in 1889 when she spent six weeks with a friend in the Russian Ukraine. In 1889 and 1890 the two sisters spent a year and a half in Italy and it was in Rome that Elizabeth received an invitation to join the New Salon.

This new group was organized by the modern French artists, such as Rodin and Puvis de Chavannes, in reaction to the conservative standards of the established artists who made up the jury of the Old Salon. Nourse promptly joined the rebels although she took the risk that the new group might fail to gain acceptance and she would lose the opportunity to become a Salon painter.

The Nourses spent six weeks in Assisi where Elizabeth worked on two of her rare religious paintings.
Assisi had special significance for them since both were members of the Third Order of St. Francis, a lay group that observes a modified version of the Franciscan rule. The primary requirement is that members perform acts of personal charity, a pledge that the two sisters took very seriously and incorporated into their daily lives.

The result was that they became deeply involved in the lives of Elizabeth's models, feeding their children, helping the sick and elderly in their homes, assisting them whenever they were needed. This affected the way the artist saw her models. Because she shared their lives, she was able to portray the urban and peasant poor with a depth of understanding that eluded artists who knew them only as picturesque subjects.

Elizabeth Nourse . Peasant Women of Borst, 1891
Oil on Canvas, 38 5/8 x 21 5/8" Cincinnati Art Museum

Peasant Women Of BorŠt
Peasant Women Of BorŠt

After this Italian sojourn the sisters spent six weeks in Borst, a mountain village in southern Austria so remote that they arrived there in an ox cart. One canvas painted there, "Peasant Women of Bont," was bought the following year by seventeen prominent Cincinnati women and donated to the Cincinnati Art Museum. Most of the donors were members of the WAMA that had previously given the new museum a collection of pottery because this specialty promised "to open an abundant field of work for women."

The sisters returned to Paris for the winter, but, in July 1892 they were off again to work in Holland for three months. They shared a cottage and studio in Volendamwith the Wachman sisters, expatriate friends from Cincinnati who lived in Paris, Tunis, and eventually settled in Rome. Henriette Wachman and Elizabeth had been classmates at the School of Design and the four sisters remained
good friends over the years.

In April 1893 the Nourses returned to Cincinnati because Adelaide was ill with consumption. She died on September 12 and this left Elizabeth and Louise as the only surviving members of their immediate family since all their brothers and sisters had died earlier. It was a tragic lossfor the artist who had been especially close to her twin and it affected what we know about her today. She had always written detailed letters to Adelaide and she never again wrote so intimately to anyone.

From this time on she decided to make Paris her home."

Next: France, Elizabeth's Home