May Alcott Nieriker, Author and Advocate: Travel Writing and Transformation in the Late Nineteenth Century

Q&A for Anthem Author Blog Post — Julia Dabbs, May Alcott Nieriker, Author and Advocate

How did you become interested in this subject?  I teach a course on “Women & Art” and in a textbook came across a brief discussion of May’s outspoken comments on women’s art studio experiences, which intrigued me. Since I’ve often been drawn to primary source materials on women artists, I started to research and read May’s fascinating writings, and given her Alcott family background as well as the relevance of her words for us today, knew that this material needed to be given more scholarly as well as public attention.

Why do you think May Alcott Nieriker’s writing has not received adequate attention?

Excellent question, this has perplexed me for years!  I think that one key reason is that her sister, Louisa May Alcott, has been such a dominant subject of interest for years due to her literary talents and intriguing life story, and thus overshadowed her sister’s life and accomplishments, until very recently. Additionally, May has typically been viewed as the visual artist in the family, and so her writings have been marginalized, wrongly so in my estimation. In addition, a number of May’s published articles have just not been readily accessible since the late nineteenth century, and even then, were sometimes attributed to her more famous sister.

What were the obstacles faced by May Alcott Nieriker?

First, she was a woman who sought to have a professional career outside of the home  at a time in which societal norms discouraged such behavior. She also was from a lower-middle class family, and thus unlike more privileged artists had little opportunity to study art in Europe until her sister could financially help her. May also struggled to find the time and space to solely focus on her art; twice she was called home from European study in order to relieve her sister of the duty of caring for their parents and household. Alcott Nieriker’s ability to sustain her career in the face of these obstacles, and the tensions she often experienced between family and career, make her story a very relatable and inspiring one for us today.

What were Alcott Nieriker’s main contributions to cultural history?

Alcott Nieriker’s contributions fall into two main areas: the first, and most significant, was to serve as a role model and advocate for nineteenth-century American women artists seeking to study abroad on a budget and to pursue their dreams of becoming professional women artists. At the same time, she dared to speak out through her published writings about the discriminatory conditions faced by women artists in some Parisian studios, as well as advocated for the abilities of her female colleagues, such as Mary Cassatt and Sarah Dodson.

In another area of nineteenth-century cultural history, Alcott Nieriker served as an advocate, both in her art and in her published writing, for the avant-garde style of British artist J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851). She received notoriety for her exceptional (and exceptionally difficult) copies of Turner paintings, bringing his innovative style to both students and to American collectors; and Alcott Nieriker again defied social norms by publishing art-critical commentary on Turner and other painters, then quite unusual for a woman to do.