Biographical/Historical Information

Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938) was an American painter, widely known for her paintings of women and children during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Born in Mount Healthy, Ohio in 1859, she studied under Thomas Noble at the McMicken School of Design (later renamed the Art Academy of Cincinnati) from 1874-81. Shortly after her graduation in 1881, her parents died and Nourse began painting the decorative panels carved by her twin sister Adelaide to help support her family. When Adelaide married, Elizabeth moved to New York where she studied at The Art Students League of New York, taking life drawing classes with William Sartain. In 1885, the McMicken School of Design offered their first life drawing courses for women, and Nourse returned to Ohio to continue developing her skills in figure drawing.

In 1887, Elizabeth and her older sister, Louise, left for France, to continue her education at the Académie Julian in Paris, studying under Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre. She lived in France with Louise for the rest of her life, but exhibited widely in both Europe and the USA until her retirement in 1924.

Nourse was one of the few women painters to achieve international recognition for her work and faced certain obstacles that a male artist did not encounter. She first had to prove that she was a serious professional since most women painters, no matter how gifted, were considered “Sunday painters” who would eventually marry or become teachers and fail to produce a significant body of work. To acquire professional status she had to be recognized by all-male exhibition juries and to be favorably reviewed by the art critics, who also were mostly men. As a Victorian lady she could not easily advance her career by forming friendships in these groups, as a male artist could; the social interchange of the café, so much a part of the artistic life of Paris in her day, was denied to her. And unlike other expatriate female artists, such as Mary Cassat or Cecilia Beaux, Nourse did not have an independent income nor did she teach. To compensate for these disadvantages, she always had the total support of her family and of a large network of women friends who admired her work, publicized it, and bought it. From 1883 until her death, she was able to earn a living as a professional artist and support her sister Louise as well.

Nourse developed a considerable reputation as a painter, acclaimed not only for her technical skill but also for the unique personal vision she brought to her subject matter. She primarily painted empathetic images of peasant women engaged in ordinary activities such as tending to housework and nursing babies. This was an extension of her preoccupation with the simple subjects she had painted in the Midwest - the daily routine of rural folk, especially women at work, mothers and children, portraits of African-American women and girls, and country landscapes. And except for a few months’ study in New York and later in Paris, her style was almost exclusively formed at the McMicken School of Design in Cincinnati.

In 1895, she became the first woman to be elected an associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and served as president of the American Women’s Art Association of Paris from 1899 to 1900. Although her work was often compared to Mary Cassatt’s paintings of wealthy Parisian mothers and children, Nourse remained committed to representing the working class women she encountered in her travels to France, Italy, Holland, and the Ukraine. During her career she also maintained a more traditional style, dismissing popular movements like Impressionism as passing trends.

While many American artists left France during World War I, Nourse remained in Paris where she solicited funds and supplies for refugees. Her efforts were later rewarded in 1919 by the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and in 1921 by Notre Dame University with the Laetare Medal for her charitable service to humanity.

Nourse died in Paris on October 8, 1938.

Bibliography: •“Elizabeth Nourse” from ‘Dictionary of Women Artists, Volume 2’, edited by Delia Gaze (Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997) •‘Elizabeth Nourse, 1859–1938: A Salon Career’, Mary Alice Heekin Burke and Lois Marie Fink (Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art and the Cincinnati Art Museum, 1983) •“Elizabeth Nourse”, from ‘Clara - Database of Women Artists’ (