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.

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