My interest in women who were notable in their time but did not earn the recognition of an obituary in a major newspaper led me to learn more about several fascinating
Americans. May Alcott Nieriker, sister of Louisa May Alcott, was a devoted artist, but was never became famous. At least her life was more exciting than her fictional counterpart, Amy, in Little Women.
May Alcott was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 26, 1840 to Bronson and Abigail Alcott. As a young child she lived in the Utopian community, Fruitlands, which her father had started. The rules were strict—no animal food, not even milk for young children. When her mother tried to milk the cow for ailing two-year-old May, her father decreed, “We don’t allow milk on this farm. Pure water is the best drink for all God’s creatures.”
“Why can’t we live the way other people do?” his wife protested. That question was one young May Alcott would ask often as she grew older, and she never found an answer.
As May grew up she was independent and ambitious. She was determined to earn money herself and not depend on a husband’s support. It would not be easy to support herself as an artist. Many girls studied art but when they grew up, they were expected to get married and let their husbands support the family. Professional artists were almost always men. May studied art in Boston, and she gave art lessons, but made so little money that she had to turn to teaching.
May’s life was dramatically changed by the success of Louisa’s book, Little Women. Now there was money for new clothes and books and even travel. For years May had longed to study art in Europe. The great museums and picturesque castles, churches, and cities
of Italy and France were unlike anything in America. May had never seen famous paintings or statues. She had learned about European paintings by looking at copies made by Americans who traveled abroad. Some of the copies were good, but they were only small imitations of what the artist had created. Now at last she would be able to see the glowing colors of the originals.
Two years after the publication of Little Women, Louisa finished writing An Old Fashioned Girl. Now the two sisters had their chance to travel. On April 2, 1870, May and Louisa and their friend Alice Bartlett sailed to France. Everything was different from what they had been accustomed to in New England. Instead of fresh white clapboard houses, they saw homes, some of them centuries old, built of stone. Instead of simple wooden churches, they saw shadowy cathedrals with statues, candles, and stained glass windows. May carried her sketchbook everywhere, always ready to capture the changing sights that surprised her so much.
The study years in Europe were May’s happiest times, but she and Louisa could not remain there long. Their mother was growing old and ill; their sister Anna’s husband died. Louisa went home first to help out and then May followed. For the next several years family responsibilities tied May down. It wasn’t until 1876 that she had a chance to return to France.
This time, May went directly to Paris where she joined two friends from home, Kate and Rose Peckham. The three of them settled into comfortable lodgings and arranged for art lessons. Suitable art classes for women were not easy to find because art students learned to draw people by having live models in class. For many people the idea of women looking at people who were nude or lightly clothed was shocking. Even worse was the idea of having men and women in the same class looking at these models. Because of this, many of the famous art schools in Paris did not accept women. May was disappointed, but she made the best of her situation. She found a teacher, Monsieur Krug, who solved the problem by accepting only women in his classes.
Not only was May a successful student, but one of her paintings was chosen from among the thousands submitted for the Paris Salon exhibit of 1877. May was eager to share her triumph with her family. No longer would Louisa be the only successful Alcott. May wrote to her mother:
Who would have imagined such good fortune, and so strong a proof that Lu does not monopolize all the Alcott talent. Ha! Ha! Sister, this is the first feather plucked from your cap, and I shall endeavor to fill mine with so many waving in the breeze that you will be quite ready to lay down your pen and rest on your laurels already won.
When the first viewing day of the Salon arrived, May went very early to see how her picture was hung. She found it was dwarfed by the huge canvases around it, but thought it held its own because the hanging committee had placed it at eye level where everyone could easily see it. Many of the artists and visitors complimented her on her painting. She felt very festive in her fashionable black silk dress and was surprised at how easily she mingled with the smart, artistic crowd. At last her patience and persistence were being rewarded. After years of being a student, she was finally being recognized as a real artist. She moved to London to pursue her career.
Meanwhile in Concord, the Alcott family was struggling with May’s mother’s failing health. Louisa wrote to urge May to come home and spend some time with her mother. May was torn between wanting to return to Concord and longing to stay abroad. She knew her mother missed her, and she wanted to be with her family at this difficult time. One day she walked to the steamship office to buy a ticket to sail to America, but when she got to the office, she turned back. She was afraid leaving Europe would mean giving up all her artistic hopes. Her dream was to return home with a strong record of artistic achievement to make her mother proud.
In November, that dream ended when May received word that her mother had died. She was overwhelmed with grief and felt guilty about her decision to remain in Europe. Although American friends were kind and helpful, May spent most of her time alone. She avoided people who came to express their sympathy, because she found it difficult to talk about her mother without crying. Instead, she took long walks through the dark, rainy London streets and spent hours in Westminster Abbey listening to organ music. She wrote to Louisa, “I try to do as she would have me and perhaps shall work the better for the real suffering I never knew till now.”
One of her boarding house friends was a young Swiss businessman named Ernest Nieriker. During the darkest days of her grief, she could hear him playing the violin in his room across the hall from hers. He knew the music cheered her, so he would leave his door open as he played. He also offered to read to her in the evenings when her eyes were tired, or to play chess with her. He and May soon became close friends and their friendship slowly turned into love. Although he earned his living in business, Ernest was deeply interested in both art and music. May found him very congenial, and he encouraged and appreciated her work.
By March, there was another artistic triumph to celebrate. May had two pictures accepted at the Ladies Exhibition in London. But soon she had an even greater event to write home about. Ernest asked her to marry him! He was several years younger than she was, but they shared a love of music and art. Best of all, Ernest encouraged May to continue her artistic career.
May’s father and sisters were astonished at this sudden engagement, but even more startling news was soon to come. Within a few days of their engagement, Ernest received unexpected news. He would have to leave London for at least a year to work for his business in either France or Russia. May and Ernest were unhappy at the thought of being separated for such a long time and Ernest made a bold suggestion:
Why should we not have this year together? Life seems too short to lose so much. If you will consent to forego a fine wedding and fine trousseau and begin with me now, we can enjoy so much together.
And so May’s life took another turn for the better. The young couple was very happy and soon May was pregnant. She looked forward to having a child and to continuing her artistic career with Ernest’s help. Once again things went wrong. May died a few weeks after the birth of her healthy daughter.
Despite her early death, which meant that she was never able to fully realize her talents and achieve her goals her life serves as a model for many women who came later. She faithfully pursued her goals and tried to achieve success without sacrificing her family or the people she loved. Surely she deserves to be remembered.
Visiting the exhibit of colored Greek statues at the Legion of Honor museum here in San Francisco this week brought me a new perspective on classical statues.
Art scholars have known for years that the ancient Greeks painted their statues and that the pure white statues found in so many European and American museums today are not at all like the ones the ancient Greeks knew. Like every other human activity, sculpture changed over the years. The introduction of Christianity changed the direction of art in Europe and throughout the Western world. The image of snow white marble sculptures influenced the way people thought about ancient Greece. Is it possible to see the statue of Socrates as it is shown in this picture and not associate it with austere, intellectual philosophy? Would we think of Socrates in the same way if he were portrayed in an orange or red toga with a busy, bright pattern?
Do we ever truly know what an historical period was like? Can we ever really imagine how people thought and felt in times gone by?
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the sculptures of ancient Greece were sought out by people from Western Europe. Many of them had been neglected for years. The Parthenon in Athens Elgin Marbles had been used to store arms and the pediment sculptures that make up the Elgin marbles were neglected by the Turks who ruled Greece for many years. Eventually, many of the sculptures that decorated the Parthenon were brought to Western Europe—most famously to England, but also to Denmark, Germany and France.
The 19th century is much closer to us in time than the ancient Greeks were. But much of
the story of the removal of the Elgin Marbles to England were still done in a period of history that seems foreign to us. Susan Nagel in her fascinating book Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin (2010) tells how Lord Elgin and his wife managed to persuade the Turks and some Greeks to help them move the sculptures to London. But their story also raises questions about how well we understand historical characters.
Lord Elgin was a noted spendthrift who had gambled away his own fortune and relief on his wife’s money to make his purchase and transportation of the Elgin marbles possible. The Nisbets were a devoted couple for several years, but bearing three children in three years made Mary very reluctant to continue having children. It is hard for us to realize how helpless wives of those times were in controlling their bodies and their frequent
pregnancies. Without access to contraceptives, Mary Nisbet was entirely at the mercy of her husband. She was the wealthiest woman in Scotland, but that was no protection. Lord Elgin wanted a large family and Mary had no power. Eventually he managed to get a divorce—which took an act of Parliament—and take their three children away from his wife. He married a second wife and had seven more children.
Whether it is ancient Greek color schemes or 19th century marriages, the past is a constant surprise. We are always discovering new truths about it. Historians are kept busy discovering new records and old remains that offer different glimpses of our ancestors. Someday, no doubt, historians will be search back through our Facebook posts and Twitter feeds to discover what in the world 21st century people were thinking and feeling. Will they ever really know us?