Nourse, Elizabeth (1859–1938)

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Nourse, Elizabeth (1859–1938)

American-born artist who was noted for her paintings of European peasant life, particularly women and children. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1859; died in October 1938; graduated from the Cincinnati School of Design; studied at the Académie Julian, Paris; never married; no children.

Working in a style described by Los Angeles critic Henry J. Seldis as a "forerunner of social realist painting," expatriate artist Elizabeth Nourse spent most of her career living in Paris and became well known for her depictions of European peasant women and children, although she also painted portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. Her work represented a trend toward more contemporary subjects and realistic depictions begun by earlier European painters, such as Jean-François Millet (1814–1875) and Jean-Désiré Gustave Courbet (1819–1877).

A direct descendant of Rebecca Nurse , who was tried and executed as a witch in 1692, during the infamous Salem trials in Massachusetts, Nourse was born in 1859 and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her twin sister Louise Nourse , also a painter, married the renowned wood-carver Benn Pitman. Elizabeth attended the Cincinnati School of Design, studying sculpture, china painting, and wood-carving along with painting. When both her parents died, she supported herself and her sister by teaching and serving as an interior decorator for some of the wealthy residents of the city. In 1887, ignoring the advice of friends to accept a secure position as drawing instructor at her alma mater, she left to continue her studies in Paris, taking Louise with her. As it turned out, Elizabeth returned to Cincinnati only once, in 1891, to oversee a triumphant solo exhibition of her work at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

In Paris, Nourse studied at the Académie Julian, then as an independent student of Émile Carolus-Duran (1837–1917), who was also the teacher of John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) and Jean-Jacques Henner (1829–1905). Within a year of her arrival, she submitted a painting to the prestigious Paris Salon, which not only accepted it but hung it "on the line" (at eye-level), an honor almost unheard of for a newcomer.

Throughout her career, Nourse traveled throughout Europe, even as far as Russia, researching peasant life and recording it through detailed realistic paintings. Although small in stature and described as frail, she went to extreme lengths to achieve authenticity in her work, traveling to obscure areas to find her models and often working outdoors for long hours. The realism she achieved is evident in Fisher Girl of Picardy (1889), which depicts a young woman and boy silhouetted against a gray, stormy cloud, their attention fixed on the horizon. "The composition is compact; the feel of the weather and color of the sky are precisely observed," writes Charlotte Rubinstein . "And the figures are above eye-level, emphasizing a heroic aspect."

From 1891, when she was honored at the Cincinnati Museum, which also purchased her painting Peasant Women of Borst (1891), Nourse began piling up awards. She was exhibited at the Chicago Exposition in 1893, where she won a gold medal for The Family Meal (c. 1893), portraying a peasant family gathered around a table saying grace. Another of her paintings, Good Friday, showing peasant women praying in church, was reproduced in books about the fair. In 1895, Nourse was elected an associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, one of the first women to be so honored by the newly formed association. French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) spoke highly of her work, as did other artists of note.

After 1900, Nourse's style softened and became more linear, perhaps influenced by the Art Nouveau movement and by the mysticism of Eugene Carrière (1849–1906). Still, her works retained their characteristic strength and compassion. "With clear, strong strokes she interprets the life of the poor and humble," wrote a Paris journalist in 1906. "Through the homely scenes which she loves to depict, shine forth the fundamental truths of humanity." But Nourse's compassion was not confined to the canvas. During World War I, she remained in Paris, helping refugees and the wounded and frequently putting herself in harm's way. In 1921, Notre Dame University acknowledged her heroism by awarding her the Laetere Medal. She was the first woman to be so honored. The artist remained devoutly Catholic throughout her life, and was a member of the lay group Third Order of St. Francis.


Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. Who Was Who in American Art. Vol. II. Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999.

Hill, Ann, ed. A Visual Dictionary of Art. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1974.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists: from Early Indian Times to the Present. NY: Avon, 1982.

suggested reading:

Burke, Mary Alice Heekin. Elizabeth Nourse, 1859–1938: A Salon Career. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Nourse, Elizabeth (1859–1938)

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