In the final years of the nineteenth century, Elizabeth Nourse joined the legions of aspiring American artists who traveled to Paris for advanced studies. Like her contemporary Mary Cassatt, Nourse settled there permanently, writing on the eve of her initial voyage overseas in 1887: “There is so much to see and do before we come back—and then will we ever come back?” Unlike Cassatt, however, Nourse did not enjoy family financial backing and instead bore the responsibility of supporting herself and her sister by her art. In fulfilling that obligation, she earned an international reputation and was a frequent exhibitor at the prestigious Paris Salon and in juried exhibitions in the United States. In a May 1900 review of expatriate artists featured at the Salon, the author—a fellow American— opined that “no American woman stands so high in Paris today as Miss Nourse. Indeed, she is one woman painter of our country . . . who ranks in the world as a painter and not as a woman who paints.” One year later, Elizabeth Nourse was elected to the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts, becoming only the second female artist and first American woman to be elevated to that stature in the male-dominated Parisian art world.

One of ten children, Elizabeth was born in Mount Healthy, Ohio, fifteen miles north of Cincinnati. Her father, once a quite successful banker, suffered a staggering financial setback during the Civil War, going quickly from “very wealthy to very poor.” Having received excellent early instruction in art, at the age of fifteen Nourse began her studies at the McMicken School of Design (now the Art Academy of Cincinnati) and later was one of the first females to be admitted to Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s drawing class. After seven years as a student, she was offered a teaching position at the school, an invitation she rejected to pursue her own practice. For a brief period in late 1882 and early 1883, Nourse enrolled at the Art Students League in New York, but returned to Cincinnati where she decorated homes and painted portraits. She spent the summers of 1884 through 1886 executing watercolors in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, probably in Blount County near Mount Nebo, as a sketchbook bears that name on its cover, or possibly further east in Pine Mountain.

In August of 1887, Nourse—together with her older sister Louise who served as her business manager and lifelong companion—arrived in Paris. She soon began studies at the Académie Julian with Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre, but remained for only three months, likely because she was already proficient as a draughtsman, the mainstay of the academic tradition. She painted subjects that were popular at the time—ordinary rural laborers, women at work, and mothers with their children, as well as domestic interiors and landscapes. Instead of embracing Impressionism, which she considered “too experimental for her subject matter,” Nourse preferred a kind of naturalism reminiscent of the French Barbizon painters. She made frequent extended trips to Brittany, traveled throughout the continent, as well as to England and North Africa.

Nourse’s talents were recognized on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1893, during one of her few trips home, the Cincinnati Art Museum exhibited 102 works, of which eighteen were sold, followed by an exhibition in Washington, DC, in which twenty-one sold. Her paintings were regularly selected for annual juried exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Carnegie Art Institute, and the Art Institute of Chicago, and appeared at important international expositions in Chicago, Nashville, Saint Louis, and San Francisco. The French government purchased her canvas, Les volets clos (The Closed Shutters) which depicted Louise near a window, for its holdings of contemporary art at the Musée du Luxembourg. Nourse’s inclusion in this prestigious collection placed her among such celebrated American artists as Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and James A. M. Whistler.

During World War I, Nourse did not leave Paris like many of her compatriots, but assisted refugees and sought donations from her American friends. Four years after undergoing surgery for breast cancer, she stopped exhibiting her work in 1924. Elizabeth Nourse died in the fall of 1938, twenty months after the death of her sister Louise. Devout Catholics, the two are buried alongside each other in a church cemetery in their adopted home city.