Painter Elizabeth Nourse Portrayed Unflinching Social Realism

Elizabeth Nourse defied all odds by carving out a successful full-time career as a female painter in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At a time when women were broadly considered inferior artists, she achieved significant honors working in a man’s world.

Nourse (October 26, 1859 – October 8, 1938) became known both for her technical skill and the vision she brought to her subjects, whether landscape or human. Although she never had children, many of her paintings captured small but profound moments between mother and child. Described by Los Angeles critic Henry Seldis as a forerunner of Social Realism, Nourse portrayed the poor with unflinching attention to the challenges of their daily lives.

Nourse was one of the few female painters to achieve international recognition for her work. She stood in great company with other examples of the New Woman including Mary Cassatt, Cecilia Beaux, Elizabeth Coffin and Ellen Day Hale. Even the most talented women were considered hobbyists or Sunday painters. The belief was that they would choose marriage or teaching careers over the commitment necessary to produce a body of significant work. Like many other emancipated women of her time, Nourse chose career over marriage, realizing the difficulties of balancing both in the Victorian age.

Elizabeth Nourse Chose Unpopular Realism Over Romanticism

Although the subject matter could be unpopular, practitioners in many disciplines were turning their attention to the plight of the poor. In journalism, Nellie Bly became known for going undercover to expose conditions in prisons, insane asylums and sweat shops across New York through the 1880s.  In photography Jacob Riis published his studies of New York slums in How The Other Half Lives, 1890. In painting, Nourse chose to examine similar topics in both rural and urban settings.

One of her most famous paintings, The Family Meal (1891) won a medal at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.  In it she portrays a family sitting at a nearly bare dinner table with a meager pot of soup and part of a loaf of bread. The parents stare despondently while the oldest child looks hopefully at her mother.

Nourse dismissed popular movements like Impressionism, considering them passing trends. Instead she chose a more realistic, traditional style. Although highly acclaimed, her works did not always sell. When she was told that more uplifting, beautiful subjects would be more popular. Nourse said she could not paint what did not appeal to her.

Elizabeth Nourse Pursued Her Career Without Wavering

The youngest of ten children, Elizabeth Nourse and her twin sister were born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1859. Her father was prosperous until 1861 when his bank failed as a result of the Civil War. The family moved to Mt. Auburn near the McMicken School of Design, which later became the Cincinnati Art Academy. Nourse studied at the school from 1874 to 1881, receiving free tuition because of her significant talent. She studied with artists including Edward Potthast, M. Louise McLaughin and John Twachtman.

After graduating, she was offered one of few paths available to women in the arts–a teaching position. A fiercely independent and determined New Woman, Elizabeth Nourse refused the position. Instead she concentrated on her own painting career. She briefly continued her studies at the Art Students League in New York. At McMicken’s she attended the first class that allowed women to paint from nude models.

In 1887 Nourse moved to Paris with her older sister Louise who later became her business manager. She studied at the Academie Julian under Jules Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger. Because her style and skills were already so well developed, she was told that there was little point in continuing her studies.

Elizabeth Nourse Acclaimed, Even As An Outsider

To acquire professional status as an artist meant being recognized by all-male juries of the Salons and international exhibitions. It also meant winning favorable reviews from art critics who were also mostly male. Female painters in Victorian times could not easily socialize with other successful artists who were dominantly male, nor could they join associations or frequent cafes. With all of the limitations, Nourse still became highly acclaimed in her time.

Among her many professional accomplishments she:

-was one of the first American women (and second woman) to be elected a member of Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts

– had her painting“La mère” (The Mother) accepted to the Paris Salon, in 1888. It was hung it “on the line” at eye-level, an astonishing position for an unknown artist.

-won many awards in the international expositions of the time, including Chicago, Nashville, Paris, Saint Louis, and San Francisco.

– was invited routinely to juried American exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Carnegie Institute, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

-was one of the first women to hang in the Musée du Luxembourg.

– fifty-five years, she earned her living as a professional artist and supported her older sister, Louise, as well.

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