Elizabeth Nourse (pronounced "nurse"), an expatriate painter born in Cincinnati in 1859, lived around the corner from Gertrude Stein in Paris but was never part of her salon. She painted on a par with her friend Mary Cassatt, but doesn't show up in museums since nearly all of her works are in private collections.
On Friday, the Museum of American Art opens Nourse's first retrospective, an exhibition of 104 works -- portraits of women working, mother-and-child scenes, landscapes and drawings. These are warm, realistic works of no particular school, by a woman elected soci,etaire of the prestigious Soci,et,e Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1901 but a stranger in her homeland.
"I cannot paint 'pretty' people; they do not appeal to me," the artist wrote, explaining her frequent use of workers and peasants as models. And yet, her oils and watercolors are beautiful experiments with light. Unlike Cassatt, Nourse was not an impressionist; her works are unsentimental and painted from life. "La Petite Soeur," an emotional portrait of two sisters, is natural and anything but sappy. "Maternit,e" shows a peasant woman with thick hands about to nurse her bundle of a baby. Nourse's landscapes, painted at her summer retreat in the French countryside or from her studio window, have a post-impressionist feel.
Also unlike Cassatt, who was independently wealthy, Nourse was forced to paint to support herself. By age 22 she had lost eight siblings and both parents and resorted to drawing houses, illustrating sheet music and tossing off flower studies for money. Later she traveled to Russia, Austria, Holland, Spain, North Africa, Brittany and Normandy, bringing home images of fisherwomen, peasants, mothers and children.
She was praised for "painting like a man" and, in the beginning, signed her name "E. Nourse" to hide her femininity. According to curatorial assistant Margy Sharpe, Nourse's struggle to win acceptance from the all-male juries of the salons involved a network of working women impressive even by today's standards. "ELIZABETH NOURSE, 1859-1938, A SALON CAREER" -- Opens Friday, continuing through April 17 at the National Museum of American Art.