Saturday, February 22, 2014

Elizabeth Nourse: Cincinnati's Most Famous Woman Artist (Pt. IV)

by Mary Alice Heekin Burke

Nourse was at the peak of her career in the years just before World War I, but in July 1914, when the Germans invaded Belgium, it marked the end of the art world as she knew it. The Salon lost its importance as dealers in London, Paris, and New York attracted the public by showing a rapid succession of modern styles. When the war broke out almost all of the American expatriates in France went home, but the Nourses felt an obligation to their adopted country.

In December 1914 Elizabeth described the siege of Paris in a letter to a Cincinnati friend and said: "We shall stick it out and retire to the cellar" and Louise wrote to their niece: "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 small pox breaks out."

Elizabeth Nourse
The sisters worked tirelessly for the refugees who flooded into Paris and Elizabeth raised money for clothing, coal, and food by appealing to her American women friends. She was especially concerned with aid to artists whose careers had been disrupted by the war, and, in 1919, the board of the New Salon presented her with a silver plaque in grateful recognition for this work.

In 1916 Elizabeth and Louise worked so hard that their doctor ordered them to the country for a rest, and they went to Penmarch in Brittany. There, they found that more than sixty village women had been widowed by the war and all the remaining able-bodied men had been conscripted, leaving the women with all the farm work as well as the care of their homes and children. The Nourses proceeded to help out. Elizabeth wrote to a friend: "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."

Elizabeth Nourse . Dans l'Elise a Volendam
 
Elizabeth had been unwell for some time, and in March 1920 she underwent surgery for breast cancer. She was unable to paint at her easel for a long time and in the 1921 Salon she exhibited works that had been painted some years earlier. By 1924 she had ceased to exhibit at all and painted thereafter only for her own pleasure. She was then sixty-five years old and her professional career had spanned forty-four years.

Elizabeth Nourse
In 1921 Nourse received one last public honor that must have gratified her. The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana awarded her the Laetare Medal, given annually to a Catholic layperson for distinguished service to humanity. The Paris edition of the New York Herald described the ceremony, presided over by the Papal Nuncio in Paris, and called Nourse "the dean of American women painters in France and one of the most eminent contemporary artists of her sex." The Chicago Tribune simply referred to her as "the first woman painter of America."
Article on Elizabeth's Selection for the Laetare Medal
for Distinguished Service to Humanity

Elizabeth was probably not completely happy with such tributes because she once told her friend, Anna Schmidt, that she wanted to be judged as an artist, not as a woman. Still, she became accustomed to seeing reviews of her work in which critics complimented her for painting like a man. Louise died in 19 3 7 at the age of eighty-four and Elizabeth, who apparently could not imagine living without her, immediately became ill. She lingered on for a year and a half and died in October 1938. She was buried beside Louise in Saint Leger and the contents of her studio were returned to Cincinnati.


Elizabeth Nourse . A Mother and Child
Elizabeth Nourse was born with great natural ability and received excellent training at the School of Design, but more than this was needed for her to achieve international prominence at a time when few women artists were taken seriously. She brought to her work a spiritual dimension that enabled her to express deep personal convictions about beauty and about the importance of the daily life and work of ordinary women whom she portrayed with sympathy and respect. In spite of the fact that she was a Victorian lady, not the bohemian artist of legend, she proved to be independent and courageous. Her life attests to the fact that her dedication to a unique vision was an inspiration to the many women who supported her, and admired and purchased her work.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

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

by Mary Alice Heekin Burke

Elizabeth Nourse . Cleaning Clothes, 1900

"Paris provided an art community second to none and the Nourses [Elizabeth and her sister, Louise] also found that they could live with greater freedom as single women there. As foreigners they were not expected to conform to French customs, and they could also maintain a higher standard of living. By selling her paintings to Americans Nourse benefited from the exchange rate of five francs to the dollar, and the sisters reported in 1900 that they could live simply on $1,000 a year, and, if they had any more, they considered themselves rich.

Before their departure, however, the assistant director of the Cincinnati Museum, Joseph H. Gest, invited Nourse to exhibit her work. She showed 102 works that she had painted in Europe and sold eighteen of them and then had a somewhat smaller exhibition, sixty-one of the same works, in Washington, D.C. where another twenty-one were sold. The Nourses had a gay social life in the capitol that included tea at the White House with Mrs. Grover Cleveland, an invitation that was probably extended through their niece who had married the son of John Carlisle, Secretary of the Treasury.

They spent a week in New York and then returned to France after a brief stay in England. That summer Elizabeth worked in Brittany for the first time, at Saint Gildas de Rhuys. They had first visited the famous art colony of Pont Aven, but it was characteristic of Nourse that she preferred to work alone in an isolated village. It became their custom during many trips to Brittany to board in a local convent both because it was inexpensive and because it afforded them the opportunity to become a part of village life. They reported that they could vacation in this way and have three excellent meals a day at a cost of only five francs ($ 1.00) each for board and room. Nourse's Cincinnati friend, Maria Longworth Storer, founder of the Rookwood Pottery, came to visit them in Saint Gildas with her second husband, Bellamy Storer, then ambassador to Belgium. During their visit Mrs. Storer purchased a painting Nourse had just finished, a light-filled scene of one of the nuns teaching two of the orphan girls in her care how to sew.

Elizabeth Nourse . En Dimanche, Brittany, 1908

On their return to Paris in the fall of 1894 the Nourses found the studio where they were to live the rest of their lives, at 80 rue d'Assas facing the Luxembourg Gardens. This quartier contained numerous artists' studios and was a particular favorite of the American expatriates. Just around the corner, on the rue de Chevreuse, was the clubhouse of the American Women Artists Association of Paris. Elizabeth served as its president in 18 99-1900 and it was probably then that Mary Cassatt gave her a pastel inscribed: "To my friend Elizabeth Nourse." Nourse was also the founder and first president of a group named the Lodge Art League in Paris which held annual exhibitions of French and European exhibition groups for women only. The fact that these groups were considered necessary speaks for itself. The women artists found that their work was not given adequate exposure in the exhibitions as available to them so they organized independent shows.

In 1897 the Nourses spent three months in Tunis visiting the Wachman sisters who were teaching there and, in 1901, they were the guests of Helen and Mary Rawson, another pair of Cincinnati friends who became expatriates, at their villa in Menton. The three pairs of Cincinnati sisters remained fast friends over the years and frequently visited each other. During these years the Nourses also enjoyed their favorite country retreat near Paris, Saint Leger-en-Yvelines, a village in the forest of Rambouillet some forty five miles southwest of Paris. Over the years Saint Leger became a second home to them and they eventually chose to be buried in the cemetery adjacent to the village church
there.
Elizabeth Nourse . Head of an Algerian (Moorish Prince), 1898
at the New Britain Museum of American Art


They were always happiest in the countryside and living close to nature seemed to stimulate Elizabeth's creativity. They lived there in a simple cottage rented from the Lethias family and their friendship with this family continued throughout their lives to include their children and grandchildren. One son, Daniel, still remembers fondly and recalls with gratitude one example of the personal charity they practiced. When he was ten years old they brought him to Paris to have some much needed dental work done, paid for it out of their limited resources, and then took him sightseeing for ten days in the city.

From 1894 to 1903 Nourse concentrated on rural themes, becoming almost exclusively a painter of peasant women. She rarely emphasized their picturesque qualities despite the different countries and circumstances in which she found her subjects. Instead, her figure paintings show aspects of her subjects' lives common to all cultures—women tending their children, working, or resting after their chores were done.

Nourse's straightforward approach to her subjects is evident in Normandy Peasant Woman and Child. This painting, now in the Cincinnati Museum collection, was bought by a Cincinnati woman, Mrs. James W. Bullock, who also commissioned Nourse to paint a double portrait of herself and her daughter in 1906 in Paris. In the peasant painting Nourse made the child the focus of attention as she usually did and she contrasted the woman's rough, redden hands with the child's soft skin, something she liked to emphasize. Anna Schmidt reported that several dealers objected to subjects like this as ugly and urged the artist to paint something pretty that would sell more readily. Nourse simply replied: "How can I paint what does not appeal to me?"

Elizabeth Nourse . Normandy Woman and Her Child
Nourse frequently exhibited drawings, watercolors, and pastels in the Salon as well as oils and it was her works on paper that first brought her recognition there. In 1901 she was elected societaire in that category and in 1904 a societaire in oil painting as well. This meant that her work was no longer juried and that she herself could serve as a juror. As a result of this official approval her reputation spread and she received an increasing number of invitations to exhibit her work.

By 1904 Nourse began to paint fewer peasant subjects, but she continued to concentrate on female imagery. A fine example of her drawing technique can be seen in the pastel Mother Feeding Her Baby which was acquired by the Smith College Museum of Art in 1911. This work has never been located since it was sold at auction in New York in 1949 with a new signature on it, that of Mary Cassatt.

Through the years Nourse was preoccupied with capturing light and she experimented with the depiction of the light of every day and season, such as lamplight, firelight, and twilight. Closed Shutters, a work that features bright sunlight streaming through shutters into a dim interior where a woman stands before a mirror, is a remarkable rendering of both exterior and interior light. It became the most famous work of her career when it was purchased at the Queen City Heritage
1910 Salon by the French Ministry of Fine Arts for the state's contemporary collection. It is currently on view at the Palais de Tokio in Paris and will be shown in a new museum devoted to nineteenth century art, the Musee d'Orsay, when renovation on the Gare d'Orsay is completed.

Elizabeth Nourse . La Reverie
Nourse was encouraged to try an even bolder experiment with light for the next Salon in La Reverie. In it, the figure, posed for by Louise in front of their studio window, is almost dissolved by the light as in an Impressionist painting. Interior and exterior spaces merge and divide while at the center of the composition the woman is reflected in the glass behind her as she contemplates yet another illusion, goldfish swimming through the translucent water of a crystal bowl. Painted in vivid strokes of blue, green, and violet, this painting demonstrates the skill Nourse brought to the illustration of the complex reflecting elements of glass and water.

Nourse was at the peak of her career in these years just before World War I, but in July 1914, when the Germans invaded Belgium, it marked the end of the art world as she knew it. The Salon lost its importance as dealers in London, Paris, and New York attracted the public by showing a rapid succession of modern style."