‘Her lovely presence ever near me lives’: A Brief Encounter from the Archives with May Alcott Nieriker

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Azelina Flint

Abstract

This article is a brief account of the professional and married life of painter, May Alcott Nieriker, sister of the author, Louisa May Alcott, who wrote Little Women (1868). I outline the theoretical importance of the current ‘archival turn’ in enabling the recovery of lesser-known female artists, and consider how scholarly bias has obscured the prolific and unpublished life-writings of Louisa May Alcott’s female relatives. The article provides a short account of how I became interested in May’s life, while conducting research for my PhD thesis on her sister at the Houghton Library, Harvard. It highlights the events and episodes of her life that stood out to me in her unpublished papers. From these materials, I provide an imagined projection of her personality, as there is yet to be a full-length biography written on her. I discuss her studies at Master Krug’s atelier in Paris and her rebellious act of painting a semi-nude African model in the classroom, while speaking out against racial prejudice. I emphasise her independence in coordinating her studies and travel, as well as her critical responses to the American art scene and Concord literati. The relationship with her mother, Abigail, is highlighted as a key influence on her life. May’s marriage to Ernest Nieriker is discussed in light of the negative reception she received for moderating her independent lifestyle, as well as the unpopularity of her husband with some Alcott-family biographers. The correspondence of May and the Nieriker family reveals the deep love between May and Ernest. Biographers are divided over the cause of May’s death, and this is discussed in light of the Nieriker correspondence. I conclude by providing a short analysis of May’s character, in order to show that she is a figure who deserves more attention within the field of nineteenth-century women’s history.

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Author Biography

Azelina Flint, University of East Anglia

Azelina Flint is a CHASE-funded doctoral candidate at the School of American Studies, University of East Anglia. Her PhD thesis, ‘Louisa May Alcott and Christina Rossetti: Male Individualism and the Female Artist’ compares Louisa May Alcott's relationship with the Transcendentalist movement to Christina Rossetti's relationship with the Pre-Raphaelites. In particular, she considers how both authors critique the ideology of individualism espoused in the work of their male relatives, in order to affiliate themselves with a vision of female community centered on Christian values, and inspired by the matrilineal communities of their families.She is the 2016 Fulbright US Embassy American Studies Fellow, having completed a semester as Visiting Fellow at Harvard University where she pursued archival research on the Alcott family. Following her fellowship at Harvard, Azelina completed a CHASE work placement at the Delaware Art Museum where she participated in the Bancroft Pre-Raphaelite manuscript digitisation project, digitising the museum’s collection of letters between poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brother of Christina, and his model, Fanny Cornforth: http://www.delart.org/letters-between-dante-gabriel-rossetti-and-fanny-cornforth-available-online-through-new-digital-collections-portal/Her work on the Rossetti family has been published in The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies and Pre-Raphaelite Review, while an article in the field of American Studies is forthcoming in Mississippi Quarterly.  

References

  1. Primary Sources
  2. Alcott Family Additional Papers, 1707-1904 (MA Am 1130.14-1130.16). Houghton Library, Harvard University
  3. Alcott Family Additional Papers, 1724-1927 (MS Am 2745). Houghton Library, Harvard University
  4. Alcott Family Additional Papers, 1820-1826 (MS AM 1817.2). Houghton Library, Harvard University
  5. Louisa May Alcott Additional Papers, 1845-1944 (MS Am 1817). Houghton Library, Harvard University
  6. Louisa May Alcott Papers, [1847]-1887, Vault A35. Concord Free Public Library
  7. Secondary Sources
  8. Alcott, Louisa May, ed. by Elaine Showalter, Alternative Alcott (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997)
  9. ---, Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys (New York: Library of America, 2005)
  10. ---, The Journals of Louisa May Alcott, ed. by Joel Myerson & Daniel Shealy (Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1997)
  11. Alcott Nieriker, May, Studying Art Abroad: And How To Do It Cheaply (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1879)
  12. ---, Concord Sketches (Boston: James Redpath, 1869)
  13. Atkins, Jeannine, Little Woman in Blue (Berkeley: She Writes Press, 2015)
  14. Bailey, Susan, ‘May’s final resting place at Montrouge Cemetery in Paris’, in Louisa May Alcott is my passion blog, <https://louisamayalcottismypassion.com/category/mays-finalresting-place-at-montrouge-cemetery-in-paris> [accessed 20 April, 2017]
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  17. LaPlante, Eve, Marmee and Louisa (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013)
  18. ---, My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012)
  19. Matteson, John, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Father (New York: Norton, 2010)
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  24. Wein, Jo Ann, ‘The Parisian Training of American Women Artists,’ Woman’s Art Journal, 2.1 (1981), 41-44 <http://doi.org/10.2307/1357900>
  25. White, Margie, ‘Little Woman in Blue: the Story of May Alcott Nieriker’, in American Girls Art Club in Paris… And Beyond (blog), <https://americangirlsartclubinparis.com/2015/10/10/little-woman-in-blue-the-story-of-may-alcott-nieriker> [accessed 10 July 2017]
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