The Painter Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938) has been rescued from oblivion.
Her retrospective at the National Museum of American Art allows us, for the first time, to judge her career fairly. She was, her show makes clear, part heroine, part victim, part sanctimonious prig.
She was courageous, conscientious, talented and kind. She won, despite high odds, acceptance and respect in the male-dominated world of French official art. Her paintings were shown regularly in the French salons, those monstrous juried shows where artists by the thousands competed for attention. She was loyal to her family, loyal to her church, loyal to her work. She chose to paint in Paris, amidst stiffest competition. Yet, for half a century, she earned a handsome living from her always well-made art.
"Elizabeth Nourse: A Salon Career" does its very best to restore her reputation. It only partially succeeds. Nourse, despite her skills, remains an artist of the second rank. Her well-made paintings cannot save her suffocating show.
It is smothered by its piety. All the women she portrays, though poverty-cursed peasants, have the characters of saints. They pray with deep devotion every chance they get. They never snarl or giggle. They pose in pretty costumes. They gaze with adoration, like so many madonnas, at their too-pretty children. The life Nourse lived was hard. The life she chose to paint is too good to be true.
One need not be a feminist to cringe at the unfairness of the obstacles she faced. When, at 28, she left her native Cincinnati to continue her art studies in the academies of Paris, she discovered they charged women twice what they charged men -- for half the instruction. Females, in those days, were rarely taken seriously, or allowed to draw the nude, or permitted to participate in the career-enhancing social life of the artists' cafes. The salons' jurors all were men. So were all of the art critics. And yet Nourse persevered.
Art scholarship of late has benefitted greatly from the women's movement. Thanks in large part to the studies of feminist art historians, overdue attention has at last been given to deserving women painters far too long ignored. Nourse, seen in this context, is a figure wrapped in ironies. For though she fought the good fight, and did so with success -- the salons displayed her pictures, she won her share of medals, she even sold a painting to the government of France -- the women that she painted closely represent the male chauvinist's ideal. They defer to their men, they sew, they cook, they tend their kids, they keep their looks, they pray.
In her "Fisher Girl of Picardy" (1889), the heroine stares out to sea as if waiting for her sailor. In "Good Friday" (1891), peasant women kneel to pray, or to kiss the crucifix. Innocence and goodness soak almost all the mothers, and all of the children, portrayed in Nourse's show.
The painter's piety was heartfelt. A devout Catholic, a lay member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, Nourse won medals for the charity with which she served the poor. Such decency, however, is more admirable in life than it is in art. Nourse's love-drenched, Christian pictures are so wholly void of sin, of fun and of rebellion that, like so many plaster saints, they tend to make one squirm.
Though Gertrude Stein's salon was just around the corner, though Whistler lived nearby, Nourse paid them no attention. Like Gauguin and van Gogh, she painted peasant life, but unlike those great masters, she preferred not to take chances. She flirted, late in life, with a watered-down impressionism, and, even early on, dared a little bit more boldness than the dullest academics.But adventurous she was not. She entirely ignored Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso.
Nourse has been compared to Mary Cassatt, another American expatriate who painted similar subjects. But Cassatt's art has dissonance and daring and fidelity to truth. Nourse is not in her class. Nourse thought Fauvism and Cubism and other trends mere fads. She satisfied the market. Competently, earnestly, she made old-fashioned art.
It is easy here to see what the modernists rebelled against. Shows that rediscover long-neglected painters are much in fashion nowadays, but this one makes one yearn for overly familiar Gauguins or Vuillards. Its 280-page catalogue contains a scholarly, star-struck essay by Mary Alice Heekin Burke, who mysteriously contends that Nourse's sometimes "Degas-like," sometimes "Rembrandt-like" art "never become sentimental." The essays by William H. Truettner and Lois Marie Fink, both of the museum, are tougher and more useful. The show will go to Cincinnati after closing here April 17.