The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

The Other Alcott is a novel I’ve been waiting for for a long time. I’ve known about Louisa May Alcott’s younger sister – the artist, the one after whom the fictional Amy March was created – and I knew the outlines of her story. But that is like the difference between sketching a skeleton and the full, live human figure.

In Elise Hooper’s able and generous hands, May’s story is fleshed out. It thrums with life, passion and imagination, and becomes one that we can relate to. It speaks to us across the centuries, a timeless story of one woman artist that can inspire, encourage and guide 21st century women still trying to figure it out today. What else could you possibly ask from historical fiction?

I have to admit that even I underestimated May Alcott. When I first saw the illustrations May drew for her sister Louisa’s book Little Women, I agreed with her contemporary critics. The drawings were amateurish, not lifelike enough, the product of an artist not without natural born talent, but still, with a long way to go.

The Nation’s critique was brutal: “May Alcott’s poorly executed illustrations in Little Women betray her lack of anatomical knowledge and indifference to the subtle beauty of the female figure.”

The criticism stung. But yet she persisted.

May might have been hurt, but she was humble enough to understand that she needed professional instruction. (Lesson #1: Accept valid criticism.) So she figured it out.

In 1860s America, art training wasn’t an easy thing for a woman to find, especially in a small town like Concord. Victorian society was squeamish about women looking at naked bodies or studying anatomy. Nevertheless, May found a doctor in Boston who offered anatomical drawing classes to women. (Lesson #2: Ignore the prudes.) Thanks to the money from the sale of Little Women, her sister Louisa was able to afford an apartment in Boston for the two of them to share. (Lesson #3: Accept help graciously.)

May absorbed everything in Dr. Ritter’s drawing classes, but there was no drawing from life. Day after day, the women copied sketches of hands and wrists or they drew from plaster casts of skulls and human bones. May’s skills improved; her eye for the human form awakened. (Lesson #4: Start at the beginning.)

In Elise Hooper’s novel, May meets a number of established women artists who show her the way. The first is Elizabeth Jane Gardner, a Paris-trained American artist who in 1868 was one of the first women (including Mary Cassatt) who had a painting accepted in the Paris salon. They meet at a Boston art gallery (Lesson #5: Go to art galleries) where Gardner holds court and tells shocking tales about her bohemian life in Paris: dressing like a man so she could have access to live models, dragging a sick lion into her studio in order to study animal anatomy. It might have been a bit of shock and awe, but it inspired May to go to France. (Lesson #6: Listen to the stories of those who’ve come before.)

Elizabeth Jane Gardner as painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (her mentor, teacher and future husband) in 1879. I love how little this portrait reveals of her true spirit, except for that hint of a smile.

Inspired by Gardner’s stories, May and Louisa head off on a European adventure together in 1870. I’ve previously written on this blog about May’s first trip to France in a post titled Little Women in Dinan, France. I walked in their footsteps in the pretty historic village where May first stayed in Europe. May was frustrated that she couldn’t get to Paris for art lessons, but she spent the season exploring and sightseeing with a sketchbook in hand. (Lesson #7: Take your sketchbook.)

14 Place Saint Louis, Dinan, France, the location of Madame Coste’s pension where the Alcott sisters stayed from April to June, 1870. As Louisa May Alcott described it in a letter dated April 24, 1870: “We are living, en pension, with a nice old lady just on the walls of the town with Anne of Brittany’s round tower on the one hand, the Porte of St. Louis on the other, and a lovely promenade made in the old moat just before the door.”

May’s first trip to France was disrupted by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, but on their detour to Italy, May finally had the chance to see nude paintings and sculptures and to draw from a live nude model. In the book, May encounters the “sniggers and chuffs” of  from the men in the studio, but she ignores the sexual harassment and soldiers on, overcoming her own embarrassment in order to learn valuable skills. (Lesson #8: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.)

May’s studies would continue back in Boston with William Morris Hunt, advancing from live drawing to oil painting, and then in London, where she copied the masters in the National Gallery and discovered the wonders of J.M.W. Turner. (Lesson #9: Study the masters.) While sketching at the gallery, May met John Ruskin, the Trustee of the National Gallery’s Turner collection, who connected her to London art dealers interested in selling her Turner copies. May finally began to earn an income from her art. (Lesson #10: Make connections.) 

In 1874, May’s efforts to pursue her art in London would be interrupted by family caregiving demands. Her sister Louisa demanded that she come back to Boston to help take care of their ailing mother. But somehow May figured out a way to juggle her responsibilities at home with opportunities to study and teach art in Boston, all the while saving her money and dreaming about her chance to study in Paris. (Lesson #11: Become a skilled juggler.)

By 1877, May was making her way in the Paris art world. She got a painting accepted into the Paris salon, she met Mary Cassatt, and was seeking a way to earn a living by selling her own original paintings. In the lovely painting below, you can see how far May had come from her early days in Concord.

May Alcott Neiriker, La Nigresse, oil on canvas (1879). Source:

May’s final challenge would be to find a way to balance love and art, to make sure she continued to pursue her painting even after she fell in love and faced the responsibilities of keeping a home and starting a family. (Lesson #11: Find the nearest Planned Parenthood?)  

As you can see, Elise Hooper’s book is a lovely story about May Alcott Niericker’s struggle to overcome criticism, sexism, sibling rivalry and family caregiving demands in order to pursue her dream to become a professional artist. It’s chocked full of lessons in both humility and persistence, lessons we still need today. At least I do.

The Other Alcott: Highly recommended.


For further reading:





Little Woman in Blue: The Story of May Alcott Nieriker

I just finished Little Woman in Blue by Jeannine Atkins, the fictionalized life story of Louisa May Alcott’s sister May Alcott Nieriker. Fans of Little Women will remember the artistic little sister Amy from Little Women, but in this book the real May gets her own voice and tells her own true and timeless story.

little woman in blue

In Little Women, Amy gives up art in favor of a marriage to the wealthy neighbor Laurie, spending the rest of her life as a genteel society woman and devoted mother.

In Little Woman in Blue, Atkins reveals that the real May did no such thing; in fact, May was ahead of her time in her desire to “have it all.” But she met criticism from both sides. Her parents said they “didn’t raise our daughters to earn a living” and believed that “motherhood is woman’s highest calling.”

But it was the criticism and advice from her own sister that May struggled with the most. Louisa May, who attained literary success but never married, didn’t seem to take May seriously. Louisa May often discouraged May’s pursuits, criticizing May’s artwork quite publicly. On the other hand, Louisa May did pay for May’s art studies in Paris. Oh my goodness, what a complicated relationship those sisters had.

Even Mary Cassatt, who May befriends during her years in Paris, says “. . . women must choose. We can be artists or mothers.” Cassatt was known to be highly critical of amateur women artists who didn’t do serious work. “It’s best to be thankful to miss the danger of childbirth, then the diapers, the scuffles, and the noise,” she warns.

The scenes with May Alcott and Mary Cassatt were some of my favorite passages of the book. In what must have been the spring of 1878, they go on a stroll to watch deliverymen carrying paintings into the jury for the Paris Salon (the same jury that would accept May’s still life but reject two of Cassatt’s). Later, May visits Mary Cassatt’s studio to find her finishing up “a sulky girl in a lacy dress sprawled on a big blue chair,” no doubt referring to one of my favorite Cassatts: Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Finally, Cassatt invites May to view the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition of 1879 in which Cassatt made her impressionist debut.

May refuses to be discouraged by Cassatt’s professional advice, and instead takes her inspiration from Berthe Morisot, who by that time had married Eugène Manet, given birth to their daughter Julie, and still kept painting. As Mary Cassatt said to May: “She has a strong will and a bonne to help with the child.” (Ah yes, the key to every working woman’s success.)

If you don’t know the rest of May’s story I won’t spoil it here. It’s a timeless story about persistence, hope, imagination and regret. I highly recommend that you read the whole book for yourself. In the meantime, you might enjoy reading the interview I had with the author Jeannine Atkins, in which we discuss women, art and the story of May Alcott Nieriker.

Q: In your book, Louisa May Alcott was a difficult woman. Although you softened her a bit, Mary Cassatt was known to be quite difficult as well. So it made me wonder, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Were these women successful because they were tough and uncompromising, or were they difficult because of the unusual challenges they faced as ambitious, talented women of that era? Is “difficult” a gendered judgment in a world where mothers say “we didn’t bring up our girls to earn a living”?

A: What great questions. I’m sorry the only honest answer is that I don’t know, but perhaps that’s where complicated questions lead. And I’m happy to speculate, which novelists get to do! Journals and memoirs suggest that Louisa was often carefree in her youth, despite the family’s hardships. Louisa notes a change in herself after the Civil War, when she was given calomel to treat the typhoid fever she caught as a nurse, and which we now know gave her mercury poisoning. Some of what we might call “difficulty” certainly came from physical pain.

I think May saw a bit of her sister in Mary Cassatt, in that uncompromising drive toward art, and the way she chose a life without the comforts and compromises of a sustained romance or partnership. Mary Cassatt seemed to show a softer side in her relationship to her sister and women friends, and her paintings celebrate such tenderness, but was also driven as both an artist and businesswoman, promoting both her own work and that of other Impressionists. Both Louisa Alcott and Mary Cassatt became wealthy due to their own efforts, and I hope they felt some quiet satisfaction in that.

Re your last question, I think that even today we tend to be harsher on uncompromising women than we are on men. I can think of some pretty harsh language that is reserved for women who persevere at work.

Q: I was shocked at the unflattering preface that Louisa wrote in May’s Concord Sketches book and I assume it’s true. I’ve seen some of May’s artwork and I would agree that her talent at times appears undeveloped. To call her a student was probably fair, unless of course, you’re family and you should know it’s better to be kind than right. Why you think Louisa wrote it the way she did? Of course, I don’t have a sister, so maybe that understanding will evade me. 

A: I was floored when I opened Concord Sketches and saw the work within described in the preface as valuable for its subject matter, though not its execution. It’s one thing to critique verbally, and another to put it in print. Also, I can’t fathom what the publisher was thinking: how could this possibly help sell a book?

Louisa was enormously critical of her own work. She enjoyed writing Gothic or lurid tales, but those who’ve read Little Women know she felt embarrassed by her interest in such, which Jo March’s beau chastised. Louisa had nothing good to say about Little Women, which would become almost instantly a bestseller and has never gone out of print. So being critical was her way of being, and she saw it as part of her role as a sister who was eight years older than May. Louisa left home to work at sixteen, when May was still a child. Some sisters can find it hard to see their grown siblings as they are, and Louisa came down hard on May, until it was rather too late.

Q: How much fact vs. fiction is involved in your story about May’s Boston art lessons with William Rimmer? I loved the tough advice you had him give to May, and it seems clear that she would have benefitted from additional instruction at that level. Was Rimmer known to have been inappropriate with women students, or was that a creative inspiration? I loved the way you had May blame and punish herself for the incident in the hall.

A: There are records of some of William Rimmer’s lessons and even guidebooks to the teaching artists of the time that would be considered libelous in ours. He had a bit of a reputation. I did make up the incident in his class but it seemed plausible to me. In classes today, there’s certainly still abuse of sexual power from instructors, and I know of young women who stopped taking classes or even making art in reaction to remarks made by professors. I hardly think such is new, or the self-blaming that often happens, and wanted to show that as one of the things that impeded May and other women from getting the sort of instruction they needed and deserved.

Q: How did you do the research for the Paris chapters in the book? Did you get to go to Paris, or did you have to rely on research and imagination? What sites in Paris would be on your dream literary tour for your book?

A: I did go to Paris, but also loved combing through old guidebooks (it’s great to live near university libraries!). Enough Americans were in Paris then that I also found details in the letters of Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and others, including May Alcott’s charming small book that she wrote with a primarily female audience in mind: How to Study Abroad and Do it Cheaply. She scolded Paris teachers for charging women often three times what they charged men and encouraged women to resist. (She also mentioned the best shops not only for paints but for hats and stockings: buy your shoes in England, but gloves in Paris).

 This book is now available as a reprint online. I was also delighted to visit Dinan on your blog. My dream tour would be to visit May’s home in Meudon, where Rodin also had a studio.

Q: Where can we find images of May’s artwork online or in person? I’ve seen some of her work but I’d love to see more. I don’t think I’ve ever seen images of her two pieces that were accepted into the Paris Salon.

A: As you inferred earlier, May’s art showed talent, but didn’t reach the heights where we’d expect it to be in museums. It’s the sort of art that a proud family might put on walls, which the Alcotts did, and because of her sister’s fame, it was saved rather than possibly being stored in attics or forgotten. At Orchard House in Concord, MA, which is open to the public, you can see some of May’s work. Drawings of gods and goddesses are on her bedroom walls, as well as her portrait of an owl and a flower panel in Louisa’s bedroom. Around the house are her watercolors of landscapes, copies of Turner, and a copy of La Negresse and the still life with a stuffed owl displayed in the Paris Salon.

Q: I think you’re on to something here. Any chance you’re thinking about writing about another woman artist? I’d love to read a novel about Berthe Morisot, Celia Beaux, Rosa Bonheur, Mary MacMonnies or the Emmets. I hear there’s a novel about Georgia O’Keefe coming out soon. Any other women artists on your dream list? 

A: So many dreams, so little time. I’m not so drawn to write about someone like Georgia O’Keefe who left quite a bit of biographical information (and fabulous letters). I start in the margins. It was the brief allusions to May Alcott in biographies that pulled me in to use imagination to flesh out what wasn’t known. And I wrote Stone Mirrors: A Life in Verse of Sculptor Edmonia Lewis which is coming out from Atheneum/Simon and Schuster in spring 2017. We have some amazing facts about how Edmonia Lewis became the first person of color to gain an international reputation as a sculptor, but there were also lots of intriguing missing pieces. And a new woman with a role in the arts is taking shape at my computer, but she must stay secret until more fully formed.

Thanks so much for the excellent questions!


Orchard House



For Further Reading:


Little Women in Dinan, France: American Girls Art Club in Paris, a photography tour of Dinan, France in the steps of Louisa May Alcott and her sister May

Berthe Morisot’s Interior: American Girls Art Club in Paris, photos and discussion of Berthe Morisot’s Julie Playing a Violin (1893)

Where the Light Falls: An American Artist in Paris, American Girls Art Club in Paris, a book review and tour of the sights where an American artist studied in Paris in the same era as May Alcott Nieriker.

A list of Alcott sources from Jeannine Atkins:



Little Women in Dinan, France

little women abroadLittle Women Abroad, edited by Daniel Shealy (University of Georgia Press, 2008), is a wonderful account of the Alcott sisters’ trip to Europe together in 1870. Most readers will be interested in the travels and insights of the most famous sister, Louisa May Alcott, but for an artist, the real thrill is to see France through her little sister Abigail May’s eyes.

Most of us know Amy, the precocious little sister in Little Women who dreamed of becoming an artist. Few of us know much about Louisa’s real little sister Abigail May Alcott Nieriker (“May”), who did indeed grow up to be an accomplished artist. Unfortunately, May’s story ends tragically. She married at the age of 38, only to die one year later after giving birth to her first child.

May Alcott began to study art in 1856 when she was just sixteen years old. She studied with Stephen Salisbury Tuckerman, William Rimmer and finally William Morris Hunt, all of whom offered single-sex studio classes for Boston women. Hunt had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and no doubt extolled the virtues of study abroad. May’s fellow students such as Elizabeth Boott, Sarah Wyman Whitman and Elizabeth Bartol were all making plans to study in France by the late 1860s and early 1870s.

After Louisa May Alcott achieved financial success with Little Women in 1868, the two sisters planned a trip to Europe with their friend Alice Bartlett. The women traveled by the French steamship Lafayette and arrived at the western port of Brest in Brittany in April, 1870.

It was May’s first trip to Europe and she was completely enchanted with France. Their first extended stay was in Dinan, a lovely medieval town in the middle of Brittany. May sent home sketches of a variety of scenes throughout Dinan, many of which are nicely reproduced in Little Women Abroad. It appears that all of May’s sketches were in pencil or pen and ink. In one of her letters, she said she wished she had been trained how to paint en plein air so she could capture the beautiful colors. Nevertheless, her sketches are sufficient to be able to identify the buildings and ruins which still stand today.

Here is a Google Map of the Alcott Sisters Sites in Dinan, in case you’re lucky enough to venture there yourself someday. Dinan is a beautiful little city which makes for a lovely day trip from a larger home base in Brittany such as St. Malo. Dinan has 13th century castles, gothic churches, bell towers, narrow winding streets and beautiful timbered architecture.

Until you can get there yourself, here is a photo tour of the Dinan sites in Little Women Abroad, starting with the building that once housed the pension in which the Alcotts stayed. It was just outside the fortified walls of the town, next to the Porte Saint Louis and just down the street from the Dinan Castle.


14 Place Saint Louis, Dinan, France, the location of Madame Coste’s pension where the Alcott sisters stayed from April to June, 1870.  As Louisa May Alcott described it in a letter dated April 24, 1870: “We are living, en pension, with a nice old lady just on the walls of the town with Anne of Brittany’s round tower on the one hand, the Porte of St. Louis on the other, and a lovely promenade made in the old moat just before the door.”


The plaque in the wall at Place Saint Louis, Dinan, France

The Porte Saint-Louis, located next to the Pension de Madame Costes

The Porte Saint-Louis, located next to the Pension de Madame Costes

The Dinan Castle, just down the street from Place Saint Louis, which May Alcott called Anne of Brittany's Round Tower. Built in the 1300s.

The Dinan Castle (which Louisa May called Anne of Brittany’s Round Tower), located just down the road from Place Saint Louis. Built in the 1300s.


The view of Dinan from atop the Dinan Castle. As May said in an April, 1870 letter to her mother: “From the top of her [Queen Anne’s] tower is the most superb view all over the country, and I am expecting great things in going to see it.”

May Alcott spent her time sketching throughout the medieval village, so full of “enchanting old ruins, picturesque towers and churches, and crumbling fortifications, that it almost seems like a dream.” There were so many good scenes for sketching that she didn’t think she could do them justice. As May said in a letter home:

I long to make pictures on every hand, but get extremely discouraged when I try, as it needs all the surroundings to make the scene complete.

May recommended Dinan to her fellow artists in a guidebook she would later write:

Here an artist can rest with delight for many months, as everything from the adjacent country, which is thought to be the most beautiful in Brittany, to the ancient gateways and clocktower in a street so narrow that the gabled roofs meet overhead, is sufficiently attractive to keep the brush constantly busy.

May visited or sketched nearly everything in town, from the Basilica of St. Saveur:

The gardens behind Basillica St-Saveur in Dinan, France

“Yesterday we went to some lovely gardens surrounding the most beautiful gothic church.” – May Alcott,  letter dated April 20, 1870 . This is a photograph of the small park and gardens that stand behind the Basilica St-Saveur today. Originally built in the 11th and 12th centuries, a Gothic chapel was added in the 15th century.

to the Viaduct of Dinan over the River Rance:

"The grand viaduct which, according to Murray [the Alcott's 1870 guidebook to France] is about the finest in the world, fairly took away my breath." -- May Alcott in a letter to Anna Alcott dated May 30, 1870

In a letter to Anna Alcott dated May 30, 1870, May Alcott said: “The grand viaduct which, according to Murray [an 1870 guidebook] is about the finest in the world, fairly took away my breath.”


The grand viaduct across the River Rance in Dinan is still breathtaking. The day I was there the local rowing club was preparing for practice on the other side of the river.

May sketched the Porte of Jerzual and the steep little rue de Jerzual, which winds down from the upper village to the river, and is lined with timbered old shops that lean in over the cobblestoned street:


Porte du Jerzual, Dinan, France

Porte du Jerzual, Dinan, France

A scene from rue de Jerzual in Dinan. As May said in a letter home dated April 29, 1870: "Yesterday we down the oldest street in town, (where, in spite of the steepness, Queen Ann's carriage is said to have trundled over it), to the river which runs at the foot. The houses overhang the street in funny little gabled stories almost shutting out all light from above, and it being very narrow & extremely steep, you can see it was a sensation to have explored it."

A scene from rue de Jerzual in Dinan. As May said in a letter home dated April 29, 1870: “Yesterday we went down the oldest street in town, (where, in spite of the steepness, Queen Ann’s carriage is said to have trundled over it), to the river which runs at the foot. The houses overhang the street in funny little gabled stories almost shutting out all light from above, and it being very narrow & extremely steep, you can see it was a sensation to have explored it.”

In their letters home, the Alcott sisters both mention their visit to the neighboring village of Léhon, which is just a mile or so down in the valley from Dinan along Route D12. Louisa May wrote home after going to a fair in the village and said (in a letter dated April 20, 1870):

May is going to sketch the castle so I won’t waste paper describing the pretty place with the ruined church full of rooks, the old mill with the water wheel housed in vines, or the winding river, and meadows full of blue hyacinths and rosy daisies.


The remains of the Léhon castle in the background.


The Abbey and Chapel in Lehon, France, once sketched by May Alcott

The Abbey Church in Lehon, France, once sketched by May Alcott

The River Rance through Léhon, France.

The River Rance through Léhon, France.

The Alcotts also visited the Chateau de la Garaye, a lovely site located just a couple of miles from the village of Dinan. May wrote home to tell her mother about the beautiful ruins there:

I have tried to sketch from memory a lovely old ruin, where we spent the day yesterday, but can give you a very indefinite notion of the gray old tower with ivy clinging to it in all directions, the rear walls having all crumbled away. The blue sky shone through the little ornamental windows in a way that was quite enchanting. It is only about two miles from Dinan and a pretty walk though the wood to the moat and great embattled walls, which surround the chateau.

Alice and I walked, while Lu went down in a donkey carriage. . . . We found a large party of English people already at the castle sketching it with pencil in colors. . . .


The  ruins of the Chateau de la Garaye still stand today. “The blue sky shone though the little ornamental windows in a way that was quite enchanting.” — May Alcott, April 1870. It makes me so glad to know some things just don’t change in over 140 years.


My own colored pencil sketch of the ruins of Chateau de la Garaye

May Alcott’s Life Beyond Dinan:

After the Alcott sisters left Dinan in the summer of 1870, they continued their European travels and proceeded to the Loire Valley, Switzerland and Italy. They found themselves the middle of the Franco-Prussian war which broke out that July but managed to find safety in Switzerland, along with many other refugees from Paris and Strasbourg. Louisa May returned to Boston the next summer, but May went on to study art in London on her own and didn’t return until November, 1871, when she was called home to help the rest of the family.

May Alcott returned to London and Paris in 1873 and then again in 1876. She would study at the Academie Julian in the Passage des Panoramas in 1876-77, and would attend the Paris Salon of 1877 where her own still life painting would be exhibited. She would be invited to Mary Cassatt’s home for tea, and would travel to the rather bohemian art colony in Grez in the summer of 1877. She was living a ground-breaking life as an American expatriate female artist.

In late 1877, while May was living on her own in London, she would learn that her mother had died. In her grief she developed a quick romance with Ernest Nieriker, a young Swiss businessman fifteen years her junior, to whom she would become engaged in March of 1878. The newlyweds would move to a lovely little home in the suburbs of Paris, where she dreamed of combining a career in art with marriage and a possible family. She would have yet another painting accepted in the Paris Salon, and would publish a guidebook for women artists called Studying Art Abroad and How to Do it Cheaply. At the end of 1878, May’s personal life and her art career were making gratifying moves forward.

studying art abroad

But then, in December of 1879, May Alcott Nieriker died six weeks after giving birth to her daughter Lulu. She was only 39 years old. Baby Lulu was first sent to live with her aunt Louisa May in the United States, but when Louisa May died just nine years later, young Lulu was returned to her father in Switzerland.

We are lucky to have been left with such a prolific record of May Alcott’s remarkable travels and experiences, even if they were short-lived. Thanks to the details and sketches provided in Little Women Abroad, we can follow along. It’s worth the trip.