Abigail May Alcott Nieriker
May Alcott Nieriker
Portrait of May Alcott Nieriker by Rose Peckman (detail)
Abigail May Alcott
July 26, 1840
|Died||December 29, 1879(aged 39)|
|Education||School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, William Morris Hunt, William Rimmer, Krug, Vautier and Müller|
(Abigail) May Alcott Nieriker (July 26, 1840 – December 29, 1879) was an American artist and the youngest sister of Louisa May Alcott. She was the basis for the character Amy (an anagram of May) in her sister's semi-autobiographical novel Little Women (1868). She was named after her mother, Abigail May, and first called Abba, then Abby, and finally May, which she asked to be called in November 1863 when in her twenties.
Her sister was the novelist Louisa May Alcott, who supported her studies in Europe and with whom she had a fond relationship, although Louisa May was at times jealous of her family life as well as her ability to get what she wanted and needed.
Artistic from an early age, she was the inspiration for Amy, one of the sisters in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, who was described as follows: "She was never so happy as when copying flowers, designing fairies, or illustrating stories with queer specimens of art."
She studied teaching at the Bowdoin School, a Boston public school beginning in January, 1853. Taking over for Louisa in 1861, May taught at the first Kindergarten founded by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody for a month before returning to her own work. Beginning in December, 1860, May was in Syracuse, New York, where she taught an early form of art therapy at Dr. Wilbur's asylum (Syracuse State School). then returned home in August, 1861 or 1862 to begin teaching art at the Concord school run by her father's friend Franklin Benjamin Sanborn.
19th-century women artists
As educational opportunities were made more available in the 19th century, women artists became part of professional enterprises, including founding their own art associations. Artwork made by women was considered to be inferior, and to help overcome that stereotype women became "increasingly vocal and confident" in promoting women's work, and thus became part of the emerging image of the educated, modern and freer "New Woman". Artists then, "played crucial roles in representing the New Woman, both by drawing images of the icon and exemplifying this emerging type through their own lives."
Beginning in 1859, Alcott studied art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. May Alcott visited Paris, studied at the Académie Julian in 1870  and exhibited in both cities, as well as elsewhere in the USA and in London. She painted mainly flowers, but also made excellent copies of J. M. W. Turner. She studied art anatomy with William Rimmer in Boston, and also studied with William Morris Hunt, Krug, Vautier and Müller among others. She taught art to young Daniel Chester French.
She studied in Paris, London and Rome during three European trips in 1870, 1873 and 1877, which were made possible by the publication in 1868 of her sister Louisa's book Little Women. She traveled on at least one of the trips with Alice Bartlett and her sister Louisa May,[nb 1] where she "came into her own as an artist." She studied sculpture, sketching and painting. In Europe she found that women had greater educational opportunities than in the United States, but the art academies did not allow women to paint live nude models. For that, she studied under Krug, who managed to enable both male and female students to paint live models.
Alcott had illustrated the first edition of Little Women, to a negative critical reception. The early illustrations were made before her trips to and studies in Europe.
After studying in Paris, she subsequently divided her time between Boston, London and Paris. Her strength was as a copyist and as a painter of still life, either in oils or watercolors. Her success as a copyist of Turner was such as to command the praise of Mr. Ruskin, and secure the adoption of some of her work for the pupils to copy at the South Kensington schools in London.
She published Concord Sketches with a preface by her sister (Boston, 1869). After having studied in Europe, she had become "an accomplished artist" by the 1870s, and her works during that time showed marked improvement compared to the earlier illustrations for Little Women and the "quirky" depiction of Walden Pond in Concord Sketches. Her works after her European studies and exposure to great works of art reflected "a surer hand, a clearer focus, and a broader vision as the world".
In 1877, her still life was the only painting by an American woman to be exhibited in the Paris Salon, selected over the work of Mary Cassatt. She made portraits and paintings of exterior scenes, some with an oriental flair. John Ruskin praised her copies of J. M. W. Turner, having called her "the foremost copyist of Turner of her time." Her strength was as a copyist and as a painter of still life, in oils and watercolors, and she painted many panels featuring flowers on a black background. A panel of goldenrod given to neighbor/mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson still hangs in his study. Several can also be seen at the Orchard House in Concord.
She was living in London and studying landscape art when she met Ernest Nieriker. They married on March 22, 1878, in London. The marriage was said by authors Eiselein and Phillips to have occurred despite her family's reluctance. In contrast, Louisa Alcott called the day a "happy event" and described Ernest as a handsome, cultivated and successful "tender friend". Further, "May is old enough to choose for herself, and seems so happy in the new relation that we have nothing to say against it." May was 38 years old, and Ernest Nieriker a 22-year-old Swiss tobacco merchant and violinist. Ernest was supportive of May's artist career and had helped her through the death of her mother on November 25, 1877, and they were engaged in February 1878. The couple honeymooned in Le Havre and then lived in Meudon, a Parisian suburb, where she primarily lived after her marriage.[nb 2]
The following year, she made the painting La Négresse, which was exhibited at the Paris Salon, "what might be judged her masterpiece" of her career. It is a realistic painting of a black woman that portrays her unique individuality without being romantic or erotic.
In her letters to family members, May expressed her happiness of married life as an artist in Paris.
In her book Studying Art Abroad, and How to do it Cheaply (Boston 1879) she advised:
"There is no art world like Paris, no painters like the French, and no incentive to good work equal to that found in a Paris atelier."
Childbirth and death
On November 8, 1879, May gave birth to daughter Louisa May "Lulu" in Paris. She died there seven weeks later on December 29, 1879, possibly of childbed fever.[nb 3] By her wish, and because Ernest traveled often for work, May's sister, Louisa May brought up Lulu[nb 4] until her death in 1888. Then, Lulu was raised by her father, Ernest Nieriker, in Zurich, Switzerland.[nb 5]
In 2002, an exhibition of her work and life, "Lessons, sketching, and her dreams: May Alcott as Artist", was the first major show of her work.
May Alcott Nieriker, Amos Bronson Alcott in his study, by 1879
- Nieriker, May Alcott (1879). Studying Art Abroad: And How to Do It Cheaply. Boston: Roberts Brothers. OCLC 8699580. OL 6929381M.
- After the death of Anna Alcott's husband John Pratt in 1871, Louisa returned to Concord, while May stayed in Europe to begin serious study.
- Louisa May Alcott depicted the couple in the novel, Diana and Persis that she wrote about art in Boston's Bellevue Hotel. Persis was based upon May and August on Ernest. In it, "Alcott sets out to prove Avis in the wrong about a woman's ability to combine art, matrimony, and motherhood."
- Her cause of death may have been unrelated to childbirth.
- Lulu crossed the Atlantic and was brought to Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States by her father's sister, Sophie Nieriker, and a nurse sent by Louisa May Alcott in September 1880.
- Lulu's library represents the stories that her aunt Louisa wrote for her niece, and Louisa's last story, Lu Sing, was a parable written about Lulu, set in China. The story is included in a modern book The Uncollected Works of Louisa May Alcott which is illustrated by May's paintings and drawings. The proceeds of the book helped to fund the restoration of the Alcott family house, Orchard House. During her childhood, Lulu had an easy life in Concord, in the care of her aunt Louisa who considered her a "precious legacy" of her sister's life and warmly rose to the role of caretaker, comforter, storyteller, and supporter. Upon her aunt Louisa's death eight years later, she lived with her father, his sister Alice and niece Hanny in Zurich. She had difficulty adjusting to the German language and strict lifestyle of her father's family.
- Dinitia Smith. From Alcott, a Parable for a Spirited Niece." The New York Times. March 27, 2002. Retrieved March 2, 2014.
- Daniel Shealy, ed., Little Women Abroad: The Alcott Sisters' Letters from Europe, 1870-1871. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2008. p. lxix.
- May Alcott Nieriker Louisa May Alcott, Orchard House Museum. Retrieved February 25, 2014.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Wilson, J. G.; Fiske, J., eds. (1900). . Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
- Louisa May Alcott. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. University of Georgia Press; 1997. ISBN 978-0-8203-1950-6. p. 12.
- Caroline Ticknor.May Alcott. Applewood Books; June 2012. ISBN 978-1-4290-9312-5. p. 31.
- Louisa May Alcott. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. University of Georgia Press; 1997. ISBN 978-0-8203-1950-6. p. 70.
- Louisa May Alcott. Little Women Abroad: The Alcott Sisters' Letters from Europe, 1870-1871. University of Georgia Press; 2008. ISBN 978-0-8203-3009-9. p. xxiv.
- Louisa May Alcott (1997). The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. University of Georgia Press. p. xx. ISBN 978-0-8203-1950-6.
- Madeleine B. Stern. Louisa May Alcott: A Biography. UPNE; 1999. ISBN 978-1-55553-417-2. p. 104.
- Laura R. Prieto. At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in America. Harvard University Press; 2001. ISBN 978-0-674-00486-3. pp. 145–146.
- Laura R. Prieto. At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in America. Harvard University Press; 2001. ISBN 978-0-674-00486-3. p. 160–161.
- per school records
- Ednah D. Cheney. The Life of Louisa May Alcott. Cosimo, Inc.; 1 January 2010. ISBN 978-1-61640-251-8. p. 255.
- Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell. A Sherwood Bonner Sampler, 1869-1884: What a Bright, Educated, Witty, Lively, Snappy Young Woman Can Say on a Variety of Topics. Univ. of Tennessee Press; 2000. ISBN 978-1-57233-067-2. p. 40.
- Conni Maloni. "Lessons, sketching and her dreams: May Alcott as Artist." Archived 2010-05-27 at the Wayback Machine Massachusetts: Concord Magazine. Autumn 2008. Retrieved March 2, 2014.
- Deborah Barker, Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2000. p. 222, Accessed via Questia, an online subscription service.
- Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). Encyclopedia Americana. .
- Gilman, D. C.; Peck, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). . New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead.
- Deborah Barker, Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2000. pp. 220-221, Accessed via Questia, an online subscription service.
- Gregory Eiselein; Anne K. Phillips. The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group; 1 January 2001. ISBN 978-0-313-30896-3. pp. 232-233.
- Louisa May Alcott. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. University of Georgia Press; 1997. ISBN 978-0-8203-1950-6. p. 209.
- Judy Stone. "A Look At Another Branch of the Louisa May Alcott Family Tree." Philadelphia: The Inquirer. January 15, 1995. Retrieved March 2, 2014.
- Louisa May Alcott. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. University of Georgia Press; 1997. ISBN 978-0-8203-1950-6. p. xxiv.
- Gregory Eiselein; Anne K. Phillips. The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia. Greenwood Publishing Group; 1 January 2001. ISBN 978-0-313-30896-3. pp. 79, 232-233.
- Deborah Barker, Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2000. p. 94, Accessed via Questia, an online subscription service.
- Betty Alice Fowler; Lucy M. Stanton; Georgia Museum of Art. The art of Lucy May Stanton. Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; November 2002. ISBN 978-0-915977-42-0. p. 17.
- Louisa May Alcott. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. University of Georgia Press; 1997. ISBN 978-0-8203-1950-6. p. 219.
- Reisen, Harriet. Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009: 300. ISBN 978-0-8050-8299-9
- Julia K. Dabbs, "Empowering American Women Artists: The Travel Writings of May Alcott Nieriker," Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide (2016)
- Erica E. Hirshler, A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston 1870-1940 ISBN 0-87846-482-4
- The Uncollected Works of Louisa May Alcott ISBN 0-9655309-9-X
- Caroline Ticknor, May Alcott: A Memoir (Little, Brown, 1928)
- Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott
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