V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





The rich darkness of the background draws viewers
in to the point where they feel as if they are included
in the room, able to see clearly the inherent beauty
of a mother tending to her children.  Nourse’s painting
engages by its treatment of universal themes, moving
in their simplicity.

One of the most popular paintings in the Brauer Museum of Art’s permanent collection is Le Gouter, an 1893 oil on canvas painting by Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938).  This lovely work was for many years in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Percy Sloan, the generous donor whose 1953 gift of art to Valparaiso University formed the basis of the museum collection, acquired the Nourse from the Art Institute in 1950.  Sloan then donated this work and others (including many by his father Junius R. Sloan, 1827-1900) in hopes that students and community members could learn from fine, original works of art.
     Nourse, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, spent most of her career in France painting pictures of the domestic scenes, usually involving women and children..  Le Gouter, French for a light snack between lunch and dinner, offers a warm depiction of a mother and child accompanied by a little girl who drinks from her cup.  The tender mood of the painting testifies to Nourse’s considerable skills as a keen observer of human interaction.
     While art critics and historians are customarily quick to place individual works in the contexts of art historical movements or schools, such an approach seems almost unnecessary or oddly inappropriate in relation to Le Gouter (although the painting is indeed a cultural product and ultimately requires categorization or art historical categorization, especially in a museum environment).  That is, while the work does relate stylistically to art movements before and during its making, it seems to speak primarily to the heart instead of the mind.  The deep umber tones certainly remind one of the baroque depths in Rembrandt’s paintings and countless Madonna and Child depictions from the Italian Renaissance.  Yet viewers are easily able to shift from this intellectual understanding when standing before this nearly life-size scene.  The rich darkness of the background draws viewers in to the point where they feel as if they are included in the room, able to see clearly the inherent beauty of a mother tending to her children.  Nourse’s painting engages by its treatment of universal themes, moving in their simplicity.
     The warmth of the painting has two aspects or dimensions, and the way in which both of these aspects meld together contributes to the painting’s effectiveness.  The color scheme Nourse uses consists mainly of shades of brown, with the edges delineating forms softened to the point of their being nearly indistinct in certain areas.  Through such an approach, the artist conveys an appearance and overall mood of a dimly lit interior that subtly glows with layered tones, all arising from the warm end of the spectrum.  The closeness of the figures arranged in the vertical composition contributes to this atmosphere of coziness within a darkened space.  Additional feelings of warmth from the piece come from emotions and instincts found deeply within viewers themselves.  The tableau Nourse presents, showing nourishment taking place on both physical and spiritual levels, has the remarkable power to produce an actual sensation of warmth in the viewer.  The joy seen in the faces of mother and child as they look at one another is a powerful reminder of feelings of love and trust that lie within the human psyche, perhaps embedded more deeply than memories of individual experiences.  Such a primary, fundamental comprehension of and appreciation for the scenario Nourse depicts has a calming effect, enabling viewers to forget the distractions of daily life and become more aware of the basic elements of a flesh and blood existence.
     Viewer engagement on aesthetic, emotional, and even physical levels is further produced by the direct eye contact that the little girl in the painting establishes with viewers.  The small detail of the girl’s eye peeking past her cup is easily missed when one first sees the work.  However, this beautiful and sensitive detail energizes the painting in the most fascinating way.  No longer is Le Gouter an impersonal work of art that is content and self-contained in its existence on a gallery wall.  Instead, it is a moment made tangible and somehow existing beyond or outside of time, much like a prehistoric insect frozen in a block of amber.  Within the picture frame, within the glazes of the pigment, the little girl still lives and playfully wonders who all the people are standing there and watching her mother and new sibling.  Her curious gaze leads viewers to consider the idea that perhaps looking at more of a reflective activity than they would imagine.  The pleasant surprise of catching the little girl’s eye is emphasized by viewer recognition and remembrance of similar glances both seen in other children and experienced personally.  The little girl in Nourse’s painting is someone with which nearly all can identify; she is a specific child who, through the artist’s masterful handling of her medium and subject, metaphorically becomes an embodiment of the wonder of youth, a wonder that is often poignant for older eyes to behold.   
     The artist’s many years in France seem to have given her the emotional distance necessary in art to see a subject for its true nature.  Le Gouter’s depths provide a comfortable antidote to the struggles of modern life.  Nourse’s artfully worked canvas surface functions much like a mirror surface, where viewers are miraculously able to see themselves as human beings motivated by the same desires and impulses asthose observed in the artist’s tender portrait.

© by Gregg Hertzlieb


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