Born on 29 December 1859 in Kingston, Ontario, Elizabeth Armstrong left her native Canada for England at the age of ten, and it was there that she began her artistic education at the South Kensington Art School (now the Royal College of Art).
She returned to Canada and in 1877 upon the death of her father studied at the Art Students’ League in New York with William Merritt Chase. Chase recommended that the young girl travel to Munich to study and Elizabeth followed his advice. She traveled to Germany in 1880 and studied with the American artists Frank Currier and Frank Duveneck. From Germany, young Elizabeth traveled to France and studied plein air painting in Pont Aven and in 1882 she began to send paintings for exhibition and sale at the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolors and at the Royal Academy in London. In the summer of 1884, she worked once more with Chase in Zandevoort, Holland. She then returned to London where she learned the techniques of drypoint etching from Walter Sickert and James Whistler.
In the autumn of 1885, Elizabeth and her mother moved to Newlyn in Cornwall where she established a studio, sharing the building with a fisherman. The Armstrong women then moved on to St. Ives, where Elizabeth met and married Stanhope Forbes in 1899. The Forbes’ became the founders of what came to be known as the Newlyn School of painters. In an article published in the Art Journal in 1904, the school is described by a contemporary writer: ‘The Newlyn students are encouraged to work from models posed in the garden, and much of Mrs. Forbes’ own work is done from a portable studio. The local atmosphere is unusually bright and clear on sunny days, and has proved particularly suitable for painting’ (G. Crozier, ‘Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes’, Art Journal, vol. 66, 1904, p. 382).
While her husband, along with Frank Bramley and Walter Langley, painted stern, salty types off to the fishing grounds, unloading the catch or mourning the lost at sea, Elizabeth found her primary subject matter in children’s play. In this she anticipates the work of Harold Harvey and Laura Knight.
Forbes excelled as a painter of children. Two solo exhibitions, Children and Child Lore at the Fine Art Society in 1900 and Model Children and Other People at the Leicester Galleries in 1904, consolidated her reputation in this regard and in the latter exhibition catalogue, a short introduction by the artist explained something of the following she had among local children. Of 'the little irresponsible folk, the volunteer models of the village and countryside', she wrote, 'When the painter, filled with energy and anticipation, emerges at the day's beginning, they are already watching afar off. They gather in bands. If permitted to carry the painting kit, it becomes a triumphal procession. Desperate their ambition to be 'put in the picture'... But their playmates, the wind and the sun, call too loud to be resisted... and the little restless feet refuse to be still... to the painter... the little sun-burnt faces and the little calico frocks become as much a part of the bright landscape as the patches of pink thrift in the clefts of the granite boulders' (Quoted from Mrs L. Birch, Stanhope Forbes ARA and Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes ARWS, 1906, pp. 80-81).
Forbes’ volunteer models needed no artifice and her ability to capture the spontaneity that is unique to childhood is exquisitely captured in Sisters. Two little girls, dressed identically in white summer frocks, sit beneath a staircase (so often a refuge for young children when they are required not to be underfoot). The elder of the two girls pages through a book of prints, while the younger rests sleepily against her sister, one hand resting the banister and the other holding up her tired head. The older girl rests her hand lightly on that of her little sister, as if to reassure her of her presence. This small gesture of care and solicitude captures the essence of sisterhood without maudlin sentimentality. Sisters is reminiscent of the childrens’ portraiture of the great American artist John Singer Sargent in its immediacy (fig. 1). The two artists choose to place their figures close to the picture plane, enhancing the immediacy of the scene. In both paintings, the children are simply dressed, but embellished by the oversized and luscious floral displays. Both artists use broad, fluid brushstrokes to capture the fleeting essence of childhood.
(fig. 1) John Singer Sargent, The Garden of the Vickers Children (study), 1884, Flint Institute of Arts, Michigan, Cameraphoto Arte, Venice/Art Resource, NY