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.
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 http://www.louisamayalcott.org/
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: http://www.jeannineatkins.com/books/Alcott_sources.htm
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