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Elizabeth Nourse, born at Mt. Healthy (Cincinnati), Ohio on 26 October 1859, enrolled with her twin sister Adelaide at the McMicken School of Design in 1874 and took instruction from Thomas S. Noble (1835-1907). Adelaide would become a wood-carver. At that time there was still no possibility for a woman to draw after the nude male figure, which was an important step in the traditional curriculum for art students. Some of Elizabeth's early works show the indirect influence of Frank Duveneck's broad-brushed technique (e.g. Old Man and Child, 1887). Nourse studied briefly under William Sartain (1843-1924) in New York and met William Merritt Chase and J. Alden Weir. She traveled to Paris with Louise, another sister, in the summer of 1887 then enrolled in the Académie Julian's school for women. Already in the following year she was successful in showing La mère (now in a private collection) at the Salon — and it was hung "on the line," that is, at the most advantageous eye-level position. That summer she went to Barbizon and fell in love with rural France. Further travels took her to Russia via Warsaw and she also discovered Provence, sites in Italy, Germany and Austria, and the artists' colony in Picardy.
In 1890 the "new Salon" of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts invited her to exhibit, which turned out to be a smart career choice. The summer of 1892 was spent in Holland where Elizabeth did some plein air painting. She returned home the following year when some of her works were to be on display at the World's Columbian Exposition (in the Cincinnati Room of the Woman's Building, as well as in the Fine Arts Palace). That September Adelaide died and two months later Elizabeth's one-woman show at the Cincinnati Art Museum took place. Nourse returned to Paris in 1894 and went immediately to Brittany, then found a new studio on the rue d'Assas in Paris. A large oil, Les heures d'été (Newark Museum) resulted from another trip to Brittany in 1895. Here we see the origins of her freer brushwork, and the use of pure pigment and dappled sunlight effects on the dresses, somewhat reminiscent of Gari Melchers' works. In a typically American fashion, the facial features always receive a high degree of finish in Nourse's paintings.
Another trip, this time to North Africa, changed Nourse's ideas of color and brightened her palette. She specialized more and more in peasant women and children even though some American dealers expressed their disapproval. Her uncompromisingrealism echoed more what was going on in European painting than in America, apart from painters like Thomas Eakins. Her painting La procession de Notre Dame de la Joie, Penmarc'h of 1903 (Xavier University, Cincinnati) shows further developments of dynamic brushwork and plein-air effects, including a violet sky, though the shadows are largely gray areas. Around that time, Nourse expressed to a reporter that "While I admire Monet, Raffaëlli, and the pronounced realistic paintings, I see more with the eyes of Cazin and of Dagnan[-Bouveret]." In other words, she felt closer to the French naturalists than to the Impressionists. According to Mary Alice Heekin Burke (in Burke and Fink, 1983, p. 66), Nourse probably regarded the impressionist technique as "too experimental for her subject matter."
Two of the most impressionistic works of Nourse are La rêverie, dated 1910 (Salon of 1911), and The Open Window, exhibited at the Anglo-American Exposition in 1914 (both in the University of Cincinnati). In the former, a woman stands before an open window, musing while staring at a goldfish bowl. This painting seems to reflect the contemporary developments of decorative intimism of Richard Miller and others in Giverny. Arguably, Nourse's art possesses a spiritual depth that is lacking in most French Impressionism and the subsequent American developments in Giverny. During the first world war, Nourse distinguished herself through acts of charity. Parts of her diary appeared in Art and Progress in 1914-15. Perhaps forgetting Mary Cassatt, in 1921 the New York Herald called Nourse "the dean of American woman painters in France and one of the most eminent contemporary artists of her sex." When Modernism made her type of Realism unpopular, Nourse stopped exhibiting (1924). She died in Paris, on October 8, 1938.