Nourse Exhibit at the CAM
First Communion Painting to Center Exhibit
A recent acquisition by Mt. Healthy (OH) native Elizabeth Nourse, a favorite with Cincinnati art lovers, is the centerpiece of an exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum this winter.
The exhibit, which opened Saturday, focuses on The First Communion (La première communion), a painting of a nun and two Breton girls that hung in the offices of the Cincinnati Catholic Women’s Association for more than 70 years. The CAM purchased it in 2012.
Nourse, who was Catholic, spent most of her professional life in France. Breton subjects, mothers and children, and working people were among her favorite subjects.
Born in Mt. Healthy, she and her twin sister were the youngest of 10 children. She studied at the McMicken School of Design in Cincinnati and spent several summers in the Tennessee mountains painting working people and landscapes.
Relocation to France
In 1887 she went to France to study briefly at the Académie Julian before opening her own studio, at the same time beginning to exhibit her paintings at the Salon. Her first success there was A Mother (Une mère), which is also in the CAM collection. The first American woman to be voted into the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, she traveled throughout Europe, Russia, and North Africa, where she found new subjects for her paintings.
During World War I she remained in Europe, using her influence with patrons to help raise money for people displaced by the war. In 1921, Notre Dame University in Indiana awarded her its Laetare Medal for service to humanity.
“Elizabeth Nourse: Rites of Passage” includes 14 other works by Nourse from the CAM collection and on loan from museums and private collections. It includes works spanning her career, several studies for The First Communion, and two Breton baby dolls she made.
“The Cincinnati Art Museum holds a notable collection of work by women artists and the addition of this important painting signifies our commitment to representing their finest achievements,” says Julie Aronson, Curator of American Paintings, Sculpture, and Drawings.
The figures in The First Communion are life-sized. Widely exhibited, the painting helped build Nourse’s reputation as critics recognized it as a tour-de-force, noting her masterful handling of the white dresses, the arrangement of simple shapes, and the subtle relations of black, white and gray.
Breton subjects with religious themes or overtones were popular in the late 19th century, but Nourse painted them, as she did her popular paintings of mothers and children, without sentimentality and with great sympathy.
“Elizabeth Nourse: Rites of Passage” will remain on display until March 2nd. Admission to the Cincinnati Art Museum is free (parking is $4/car). The museum is open from 11 am – 5 pm Tuesday through Saturday; closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
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