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How Little Women Overshadowed the Artistic Career of Another Alcott Sister

A decade after the bestselling novel was published, the younger sister May Alcott Nieriker came out with a women’s guide to studying art in Europe.

Watercolor of Orchard House by May Alcott Nieriker (c. 1860) (all images courtesy Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House)

As Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women celebrates its 150th anniversary, many may not know about the art guide written by a younger and now largely forgotten Alcott sister. A decade after the Roberts Brothers publishers made a name for themselves with the release of Alcott’s bestselling novel, they published a women’s guide to studying art in Europe penned by May Alcott Nieriker. Studying Art Abroad, and How to Do It Cheaply (1879) did not achieve the fame (or upcoming Hollywood movie version starring Meryl Streep) of Louisa’s classic. But it did provide much-needed advice to a number of American women artists who boarded ships to get the training opportunities that evaded them at home.

As a painter who left Concord, Massachusetts to study art in three European cities, exhibit twice in the Paris Salon, and hobnob with the likes of Impressionist Mary Cassatt and art critic John Ruskin, May was certainly qualified to write such a primer. In her first chapter, she dedicated her volume (which included tips on essentials like instructors, lodgings, and skilled tailors) to a reader akin to herself: “a thoroughly earnest worker, a lady, and poor, like so many of the profession, wishing to make the most of all opportunities, and the little bag of gold last as long as possible.”

Little Women illustration (1868)

There was definitely a market for May’s book. According to Amanda Burdan, an associate curator at the Brandywine River Museum of Art who wrote her doctoral dissertation on 19th-century female American artists in Paris, women like May were then flocking to the continent and 40 of them exhibited paintings in the Paris Salon between 1840 and 1860 alone. Nonetheless, we can reasonably assume that it was her last name that spurred the Roberts Brothers to print Studying Art Abroad, perhaps hoping for another Alcott bestseller.

The publication of her guidebook aside, May’s affiliation with Louisa also got in her way. “[She] has either been branded as ‘the sister of Louisa May Alcott,’ or ‘the real Amy,’” said Azelina Flint, a doctoral student researching Louisa and co-organizer of a recent conference that took place at the Université Paris Diderot about May’s life and work. She was referring to the Little Women character allegedly (and unflatteringly) based on May — Amy, generally the least-liked of the four sisters in the semi-autobiographical Little Women novel, is portrayed as a vain, childish, and jealous character who does silly things like wear a clothespin on her nose to correct its flatness.

May Alcott (c. 1870)

Unfortunately, May’s legacy has largely remained in the realm of literary history, among English professors who know her as the unlovable character that she supposedly inspired. This perception is reinforced by the fact that most of May’s publicly viewable artworks are at Orchard House, the Alcott sisters’ childhood residence that is now a museum marketed as the “Home of Little Women.”

“May’s artwork is everywhere in Orchard House,” Jamie Lynne Burgess, a former Orchard House guide, told Hyperallergic. “[It’s] drawn in ink on all the walls of her room and on the door frames, on the fireboards that cover each fire place. She burned a portrait of Raphael into her mother’s bread board. She made the paintings that hang on most of the walls.” Instead of showcasing May’s artistic talent, Little Women tourists often find that this reinforces Louisa’s description of Amy as “never so happy as when copying flowers, designing fairies, or illustrating stories with queer specimens of art.” A still life oil painting that was exhibited in the 1877 Paris Salon — a year that Mary Cassatt’s work was rejected from this upper echelon exhibition of French academic art — hangs at Orchard House.

May Alcott Nieriker, “Calla Lily Flower Panel” (c. 1865)

May has not been acknowledged by mainstream art history either, despite her exhibition successes. In addition to being overshadowed by her fictional doppelgänger Amy, a few things have kept her out of art books, classes, and museums.

“May is a bit of a blank slate. There are definitely a lot of holes in her history,” said Elise Hooper, a writer who recently published a historical fiction novel about May titled The Other Alcott (2017). “What made May an appealing subject for a novel is there’s not a ton of information.”

This lack of information, combined with the fact that her paintings are hidden in the private collections of her extended family, have turned her into an art-historical ghost. She also died at the tragically young age of 39 following childbirth complications, right “at the moment her art was gaining momentum,” Flint explains. “Perhaps if she had lived, she would have achieved equal fame to Louisa.”

Her life was cut short at a time when she was completing the artistic training she struggled to get, and before she fully developed an individual style. May was still painting in the academic style she learned at the Académie Julian when she died, and because she was supporting herself with her artwork she didn’t have the financial luxury of experimenting with the avant-garde mode of looser brushstrokes favored by the Impressionists.

“She and many other women artists of the period have historically been downgraded because they lacked the finish, the polish — that extra,” Burdan said. “But when you weigh that against the challenge to even get the education and time in the studio, and someone to pay attention and advise them — I think it’s a complete story; it’s not just about the most beautiful painting in the world. It’s the story of the artist, as well as the painting that she produced.”

May Alcott Nieriker, “Fruit & Bottle Still Life” (1877)

A more complete story of the American woman artist’s struggle is the one told in Studying Art Abroad, and How to do it Cheaply, narrated by a compatriot and colleague. “Art is so over-talked and over-written at the present time,” opened May in her first chapter, “but none of these writers report the actual cost of living, instruction, or rent of studio abroad; or how one in search of such can most easily and economically obtain them, in order to realize the desire of one’s heart.”

Burdan and other scholars who recently attended the one-day conference devoted to this unknown Alcott sister’s legacy are trying to bring her tale to light — this time as May, and not Amy. “We need to challenge notions of canonization,” Flint asserts. “We need to recover the people who’ve been forgotten and give them a chance to speak because, through doing this, we form a better understanding of history and a deeper appreciation of literature. Even if they are not ‘geniuses’ they have valuable insights about the artistic milieu in which they moved — insights that will otherwise be neglected.”

Baby Owl on Louisa’s Mantel by May Alcott Nieriker (c. 1865)
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