Jamie Lynne Burgess
Thoughts & Reflections from the May Alcott Conference
Updated: Oct 23, 2022
Nearly every presenter said with enthusiasm, “I’m so grateful to present this to people who already know what I’m talking about!” It was a shared sentiment; we’ve all been talking about this in isolation for years: in Idaho and Pennsylvania and Paris and England, yet we had never been brought together before to really explore the work. Then, thanks to the foresight of Azelina Flint, the graduate student who conceived of the idea for the conference and then brought it into the world, there could be a sigh of relief. For one beautiful day, we were at last in the same room, talking in the same language about the same ideas.
There was no hedging, no justification. We didn’t need to begin by saying why it was important or why anyone should care about the lesser-known little sister of a famous author. We all already know how important May Alcott Nieriker is to women artists, to the conversation about the influence of the Concord thinkers, and to aspiring expats like me, who have read Studying Art Abroad and How to Do It Cheaply, and know that May Alcott Nieriker didn’t withhold information from other young women who want to pursue life in Europe. She had always been willing to share, whether in writing for other young women, or by sitting in the front yard of a certain future-sculptor, teaching him to carve vegetables with a pocket knife.
The conference was called “Recovering May Alcott Nieriker’s Life and Work," and it began with the announcement that Azelina has been working to have a plaque erected at the home where May lived and worked in the 9th arrondissement. It’s a brave endeavor, considering the French reputation for its labyrinth of paperwork, but the announcement was met with joy and surprise from the audience, all of whom will make the pilgrimage someday to see the plaque in May’s honor.
We began with John Matteson’s keynote address, where the author justified that in the study of literature he had always been primarily focused on using words to describe other words, but that a study of May, of course, required using words to describe paintings, which presented a challenge.
While all of the presenters were careful to remark that John Ruskin’s praise of May Alcott Nieriker’s Turner copies was hearsay or gossip, and that no one is sure of when or where or how he really praised her, we collectively decided that it didn’t matter. May was known for her Turner copies, and we got to see side-by-side comparisons of these works in Matteson’s presenation. What surprised me most about May’s copies were the artistic license that she took; these were by no means exact copies, and their symbolic emphasis was decidedly different than Turner’s own. Though they may have been copies, May was coming into her identity as an artist, one who would take her own path, which we saw in her final paintings.
The final section of Matteson’s paper focused on a comparison of Turner’s The Slave Ship with May Alcott Nieriker’s La Negresse, which Matteson called “her masterpiece.” Indeed, over the course of the day, this portrait was projected onto the screen again and again, and each time, no less striking. Ariel Clark Silver put the portrait in conversation with Benoist’s Portrait d’une Negresse, also a noteworthy comparison. It was easy to remark that May Alcott Nieriker had come a long way from her amateurish and awkward renderings of the girls in the first edition of Little Women.
May Alcott Nieriker's La Negresse (1879) and Benoist's Portrait d'une negresse (1800)
Perhaps because of the location in Paris or because of the feeling that we were all starting from scratch, there was a heavy emphasis on May Alcott Nieriker’s time in Europe and her awakening as an artist, and little discussion of her days in Concord and how they might have influenced her. But I think what is most important to note about May’s Concord days is how they taught her to have what we would now call a growth mindset. She believed in limitless possibility for her talent and that she could control the outcomes of her art with hard work and application, and she certainly embraced this growth mindset most readily in Europe, where she produced her most important works. May was not born with perfect aptitude for art; she was born with curiosity and a desire to create. Her skill was carefully honed, and she worked hard for it.
Margaret and May
It’s such a tempting comparison, and one that came up over and over throughout the day, most obviously with Ariel Clark Silver’s presentation “Republics Abroad: The Art and Politics of Margaret Fuller and May Alcott in Nineteenth-Century Europe,” but that Matteson also discussed. Both May Alcott Nieriker and Margaret Fuller Ossoli, of course, were raised on Transcendentalism; both experienced a kind of intellectual awakening in Europe and became drawn to the continent; both married European nationals significantly younger; both women had young babies and were learning to balance family life with their careers when their lives were cut short at 40 years old.
Margaret Fuller, Portrait from the National Gallery
Every time I relive the circumstances around each of their deaths, it’s senseless and incensing, though for different reasons. Fuller Ossoli, of course, was so close to the shore when the ship went down. May Alcott Nieriker, on the other hand, died directly as a result of her childbirth—some had speculated that the doctor came directly from the morgue, at a time when hand-washing was not yet standard medical practice in France—which feels even more unjust, to have died directly as a result of her pursuit of a family. A pessimistic view could see each of their stories as cautionary tales for women who want to “have it all.”
Still, this is a difficult comparison because of the great divides in their temperaments and their generations. These women first met when May Alcott was just a baby riding in a wheelbarrow, one of Bronson Alcott’s “model children,” Margaret Fuller remarked sarcastically. Though there is little evidence of a direct link of Fuller’s influence on Alcott, John Matteson also remarked that Europe was a turning point for both women, as we know from David McCullough’s book The Greater Journey, that Europe offered something inspirational for Americans in the nineteenth century, something they could not find back home.
I think this comparison is important though because it elevates May Alcott Nieriker; we already know the significant contribution that Margaret Fuller made to American Letters, so by bringing these two women together in conversation and comparison, we can start to understand May Alcott Nieriker’s own important contribution, a generation later. We realize, also, how their trials to “have it all” are not just symbolic but laden with meaning even for women in the twenty-first century.
May Alcott Nieriker’s Contemporaries
Among those of us who love May Alcott Nieriker for one reason or another, there’s a general feeling that given a little more time, she would have become truly “Great.” Another Mary Cassatt, undoubtedly. There was a desire to speculate, among the group at the conference, about the type of Impressionist that May might have become. Because she was so drawn to Turner, who was himself so anomalous as an artist, and because of her social circles, it’s easy to come to this conclusion, but then it’s just pure speculation, and it doesn’t help us to make any sense of May as she really was.
This is important to me because whenever we are seeking a justification for studying May Alcott Nieriker, we seem to be saying that her life as it was wasn’t quite enough, that it lacked the depth and darkness of Louisa May Alcott’s suffering, that it isn’t worth studying unless she really did something “Great.” I am tempted myself to make these leaps in a speculative future, but what I really want to insist is that May Alcott Nieriker was, of course, enough. Just as she was, in the life that she lived. And while she may not have lived to raise her child, she took an approach to life that was different from Louisa’s but equally feminist, equally strong.
One of the benefits, though, of reaching farther afield to May’s contemporaries is that we see a more complete picture of what life was like for May Alcott Nieriker, particularly in the galleries and museums of Paris where she worked. The women in their cumbersome dresses seated at easels, filling the galleries. They were all seeking something, something that for whatever reason, America hadn’t offered them. There is a tendency to chide those who were not serious enough—even May disliked those women who were there to catch a husband—but I see even this as a kind of misogynist view; marriage has always been one of the ways that women are able to be mobile, to gain access. Some women might have seen it as a tool toward freedom, and I think shaming them is still as unhelpful as it was in the nineteenth-century.
The Greatest Comparison
And then, of course, the elephant in the room is May Alcott Nieriker’s famous sister, Louisa May Alcott, who was mentioned in passing over the course of the day as if we were talking about an old friend. Bronson was consistently mentioned as well, but Louisa casts the shadow that May stands beneath. In the presentation by Lauren Hehmeyer called “Let the World Know You Are Alive: The Idea of Genius and May Alcott Nieriker,” the professor discussed changing views of genius over the centuries and whether or not women were believed to possess genius or to become one.
Again, she invoked Fuller Ossoli, but of course Louisa May Alcott’s genius burned brightest in May Alcott Nieriker’s life—Louisa, the martyr, the patient and hard-working, all the things that May was not. It’s impossible to overstate the depth of the psychological scar that was Fruitlands on Louisa May Alcott’s psyche. I believe that Louisa and May came to differ, here, in their understanding of livelihood: whereas for May, livelihood is primarily liveliness and joy, for Louisa it was literal: she had seen what happened at Fruitlands, and she knew that a livelihood meant staying alive.
There is much work here to be done, to set to right the idea of the sisters not in competition but in a complex family relationship, dynamic and that changed over time and certainly continued to change even after May's death.
So, after an engaging and intellectual day discussing May Alcott Nieriker’s life and work, what can we hope for in the future? First, we'll be looking forward to the podcast by C19 in December, some of which was recorded at the end of the conference and will be convened by Azelina and two students from the Brilliant Club (a charity that funds PhD students to work with high school students from underrepresented backgrounds). Of course, I’d like to see the plaque erected on her former home in Paris, and I’d especially like to participate in another conference that could go more deeply into the early influences of her life in Concord on her work. I’d like us to continue to recover her works and even to see them on exhibit. Most importantly, I want us to see that just because May is consistently portrayed in letters and stories as jovial, funny, and life-loving, she is still “serious” as an artist.
One of the best things about the conference was the way that we all took May seriously without having to justify her, and this can be difficult to explain to a wider audience who has always seen Louisa May Alcott as the spinster, holed up in her attic, spinning stories from handmade thread while May was out frolicking with Julian Hawthorne and causing trouble. May Alcott Nieriker had a zest for life that is deeply a part of her work, work that was serious and important. And it’s our serious and important work to make sure she is never lost.
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