Elizabeth Nourse, 1860 – 1938

Elizabeth Nourse in her first Paris studio at 8 rue de la Grande Chaumière, 1888, Photo by Mr. Richard Thompson. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Elizabeth Nourse, born on October 26, 1859 to a family descended from French Huguenots in a suburb of Cinc­innati, Ohio, was an expert portraitist, genre painter, and landscape painter, honored as one of the first women to be voted into the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. She was apparently quite proud of her Huguenot lineage, and could claim as an ancestor Rebecca Nourse, who had been hanged as a witch in Danvers, Massachusetts in 1692 (Current Literature, January 1910, p. 92). In 1874, Elizabeth and her twin sister Adelaide, the youngest of ten children, began studying at Cincinnati’s McMicken School of Design, an important arts institution in the Midwest that would eventually become the Art Academy of the Cincinnati Art Museum (Aronson).

Elizabeth excelled at sculpture but ultimately chose painting as her preferred medium. Her first exhibition came in the fall of 1879 at the Cincinnati Industrial Exposition and she would continue to exhibit there annually until she went abroad (Burke 25). Due to her family’s financial difficulties, Nourse worked after school, teaching design and working with Adelaide to decorate the homes of wealthy Cincinnati residents (Logan 756). After the death of both her parents in 1882, Nourse studied at the Art Students League in New York with William Sartain.

Elizabeth Nourse, “Head of a Girl,” ca. 1882, oil on canvas. Cincinnati Art Museum

Nourse then moved to Paris in July 1887 with her older sister, Louise, who became her lifelong companion and business manager. They first stayed at the Villa des Dames, a well-regarded pension at 77 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs (Burke 30), where sculptor Malvina Hoffman also temporarily resided after arriving in Paris. The sisters then lived briefly at 8 rue de la Grande Chaumière, 72 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, and, finally, they moved to 80 rue d'Assas in 1894, which would remain their home for the rest of their lives. Nourse’s studio on the fourth floor of 80 rue d’Assas had very large windows overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens. During her first months in Paris, Elizabeth studied briefly with Gustave Boulanger and Jules Joseph Lefebvre at the Académie Julian, and then with Carolus-Duran and Jean-Jacques Henner (Who's Who in Paris Anglo-American Colony 1905, 67). She astounded all the atelier masters with her skill and it became very quickly evident to all her teachers that she was not in need of their instruction.

Elizabeth Nourse, “A Mother (Une mère),” 1888, oil on canvas. Cincinnati Art Museum

Nourse’s prodigious talent was so immediate that she successfully submitted a painting of a mother and child to the 1888 Salon des artistes français after just three months at the Académie Julian. It was chosen to hang on the line, enjoying a place of honor in the gallery, truly a remarkable feat for a first-time Salon entry. After just two years, Nourse accepted an invitation to join the new Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, “formed by artists of more progressive tendencies,” where she would continue to exhibit her work for the next two decades (Aronson).  She was elected "Associate" then "Sociétaire" des Beaux Arts in 1895 and 1901 respectively. Upon her election as “Associate,” the great artist Puvis de Chavannes, whom Nourse greatly admired, was one of the first to send his congratulations: “I am rejoiced to know that you have obtained the recognition which your talent so richly deserves” (as quoted in Seaton Schmidt 249). In 1900, Nourse was also awarded a silver medal for her submission to the Exposition universelle, a painting called “In the Church at Volendam, Holland.” 

Elizabeth Nourse, “Fisher Girl of Picardy,” 1889, oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art

After a few years of Salon success, Nourse and Louise traveled back to the United States from 1893-1894, their only return trip for the next forty years. While in America, Nourse exhibited at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where her 1891 painting “The Family Meal” earned a medal. She also enjoyed the only major solo exhibition of her career with a 100-work show at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1893. Perhaps most importantly, Elizabeth was able to spend time with her ailing twin sister Adelaide, who had married her teacher, British-born wood carver Benn Pitman, nearly forty years her senior, and remained in Cincinnati. Adelaide died tragically of tuberculosis on September 12, 1893, leaving behind two young children, a grieving husband, and two bereft sisters in Elizabeth and Louise. Adelaide had worked closely with her husband on many important wood-carving commissions, most notably panels for the screen of the large organ at the Cincinnati Music Hall (The Phonographic Magazine 342). Elizabeth and Louise returned to Paris a few months later, never to visit the United States again.

Nourse, considered “a sincere student of nature, of the real, the actual,” was particularly known for realist depictions of working people, rural scenes both in her native Midwest and in her adopted home of France, and domestic scenes of mothers and children (Seaton Schmidt 249). In 1910, French critic Albert Dubuisson declared, “There is no painter who has reproduced better than Miss Nourse has the naiveté of a baby’s attitudes and the tenderness of mother love” (as quoted in Current Literature 90). Her most famous contemporary, Mary Cassatt, was also known for her tender scenes of motherly affection. Both Cassatt and Nourse, though admired for their skill, were the recipients of such backhanded, sexist compliments as this statement about Nourse: “Her paintings show that rare and delightful combination, the delicate insight of a good woman mated with the strength of technique of a man” (Current Literature 90). But Cassatt was perhaps more financially or socially motivated than Nourse, since Cassatt painted wealthy French and American subjects, while Nourse exclusively painted peasants (MacChesney 39).

She also produced fascinating images from her travels in Russia, Tunisia, Italy, Austria, and Holland.

Nourse's success as an artist and her fierce spirit of independence meant that she and Louise lived in their own accommodations during their years in Paris. She never resided at 4 rue de Chevreuse but was closely affiliated with the Girls’ Art Club, serving as president of the American Woman's Art Association from 1899-1900, and her studio home on the rue d'Assas was just a few blocks away. Nourse frequently exhibited her work at the AWAA shows held at the Club and sometimes served on the selection jury for these annual events, the only woman accorded such an honor in the association’s first decade.

Elizabeth Nourse, Les volets clos, ca. 1910, oil on canvas. Musée national de la Coopération franco-américaine, Blérancourt

Many of Nourse’s paintings were purchased by or gifted to American museums, such as the gift in 1909 of “Happy Days” to the Detroit Museum of Art by Mrs. Whitney Hoff, an expatriate American in Paris known for her support of art students (she established a “rival” residence to the Girls’ Art Club on the Boulevard Saint-Michel). But one of Nourse’s greatest triumphs was the purchase in 1910 of her painting "Les volets closby the French government for its permanent art collection in the Musée du Luxembourg (Art and Progress, July 1911, 262). Joining works by famed male peers James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Winslow Homer, and John Singer Sargent, "Les volets clos," painted by Nourse in Haute Alsace, was eventually transferred in 1986 to the Musée d'Orsay and then in 1991 to the Musée national de la Coopération franco-américaine at Blérancourt.

Elizabeth Nourse, “French War Orphan in Penmarch, Brittany,” undated, watercolor and black chalk. Cincinnati Art Museum

A devout Catholic, Nourse never married. She and Louise joined a lay religious group called the Third Order of Saint Francis when they visited Italy from 1890-1891 (Terra Foundation). The order lived by a modified Franciscan rule in which acts of personal charity were required (Burke 39). Elizabeth chose her models as the recipients of her seemingly boundless charity and was known to be particularly kind to the children, whose poverty deeply affected her:

“Absorbed in her work, she is oblivious of all personal discomfort; her only anxiety is for her models, whom she dislikes to tire. Her goodness to them is so well known in Paris, that all who are in trouble come to her for advice and help. She gives them not only money, but her precious time and strength. Visiting them when they are ill, carrying them food and clothing, her presence is like a ray of bright sunshine in their dreary lives” (Seaton Schmidt 253).

Nourse was awarded the Laetare Medal by the University of Notre Dame in 1921, a recognition given annually to a Catholic layperson for “distinguished service to humanity.” The French and American presses covered the ceremony in Paris, which was presided over by the Papal Nuncio, and where the customarily shy Nourse addressed a crowd of more than two hundred well-wishers (Burke 75).

Portrait of Elizabeth Nourse by C.M. Ross, reproduced in “Extracts from the Diary of an American Artist in Paris.” Art and Progress, volume 6, number 2, December 1914, p. 44

Nourse’s commitment to the French people led her to remain in Paris during World War I, to “render what assistance she could to the sick and suffering” (Art and Progress, December 1914, p. 41). Since the United States had not yet joined the war, Nourse published extracts from her diary in Art and Progress to share her horrific experiences with the American public. On August 4, 1914, in the earliest days of the war, she recounted her commitment to remaining in Paris, saying that she and her sister “would feel like cowards to desert now, after all the kindness we have received from France” (Art and Progress, December 1914, 41). She also described the fear of looming bread shortages and the eerily empty streets, since all buses and automobiles, not to mention their drivers, had been sent to war. In addition to chronicling the progress of the American hospital at Neuilly, Nourse also reported that the big department stores Printemps and the Bon Marché had offered space in their buildings for hospitals to use (42). As the war dragged on, Nourse shared more of the everyday tidbits that are often forgotten in the aftermath of the carnage: sheep pastured in the Parc Monceau and cows in the Bois du Boulogne, ensuring milk and dairy for children and the sick in case of a German siege; her fear as she passed Rodin’s home, worrying that the war would kill the old, unwell sculptor; the kindness of the Luxembourg Museum director offering to store Nourse’s own painting collection with that of the museum; and so on (46).

“Rue d’Assas,” 1929, Gouache and watercolor, with black chalk and black conté crayon on light brown wove paper (pieced), laid down on Japanese paper. Terra Foundation for American Art

The second installation of her published diary appeared in Art and Progress in June 1915, when she described all the canteens that had sprung up around Paris to feed poor artists who could not work because of the war. First, Nourse visited the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts canteen on the rue de la Procession, named l’Amicale Puvis de Chavannes in honor of the great painter, where artists could pay ten cents (or nothing if they could not afford it) for a good, hearty meal (274). Next, she made her way back to Montparnasse to see the two canteens established at 1 rue de la Grande Chaumière (Janet Scudder’s residence from 1908-1913) where they had recently served their twenty thousandth meal and where the wine was all donated by the Rothschilds (274). Nourse also reported on the activities of her fellow Americans: “Frieske has been working in the hospitals. […] Florence Esté is painting again in Paris after an exciting summer, for the village where she was working had to be evacuated at the approach of the enemy” (276-277). Art and Progress stopped publication after December 1915 so there is sadly no further record of Nourse’s wartime dispatches. In recognition of her service to refugees, indigent artists, and the wives and children of her models at the front, Nourse was awarded a silver plaque in 1919 by the board of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (Burke 73).

Photo of Elizabeth Nourse in her apartment in Paris by Mrs. Eagleton, September 21, 1928, gelatin silver print. Cincinnati Art Museum

Nourse underwent a mastectomy to treat breast cancer in 1920 and painted very little in her last two decades; her final Salon appearance came in 1921. Though she remained a Paris resident on the rue d’Assas until her death in 1939, Nourse frequently exhibited her work in the United States, and she was considered a major presence on the American art scene in the early twentieth century: her work was shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, to name a few.


Elizabeth Nourse, Self-portrait, 1892, oil on canvas. Wikimedia Commons.
Elizabeth Nourse self-portrait mural, 8th Street and Walnut Street in Cincinnati, Ohio, 2015.

Today, the largest collection of Nourse’s works can be found at the Cincinnati Art Museum and her iconic 1892 self-portrait has been transformed into a mural in her hometown. Though remembered today as part of a sort of trio of celebrated American women painters in Paris along with Cecilia Beaux and Mary Cassatt, Nourse was considered the best in her lifetime: “No American woman artist in Paris stands so high to-day as Miss Nourse. Indeed, she is the one woman painter of our country[…] who ranks in the world as a painter and not as a woman who paints” (Thompson 25).

Elizabeth Nourse, “Lavoir, Paris,” 1888, watercolor over pencil. Cincinnati Art Museum


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Photo of Nourse’s studio at 80 rue d’Assas, 1894, from Louise Nourse’s Scrapbook 1, p. 12; reprinted in Burke (51)