In celebration of the debut of The Other Alcott, Fierce Femme Friday will be exploring the trail blazing artist, May Alcott, with the help of Author, Elise Hooper.
Fans of Little Women travel from all over the world to visit Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. For Louisa’s devoted readers, it’s thrilling to see the small desk where she wrote her beloved classic about the March sisters. I grew up in a neighboring town and visited the Alcott’s family home-turned-museum many times. Louisa was the headliner, but May, the youngest of the Alcott sisters always intrigued me. In her small bedroom at the back of the house, pencil sketches of angels, birds, and men and women in fanciful clothing flowed across her walls. Who was this woman, this artist? Sure, we all know her as Amy in Little Women, the bratty, spoiled sister, but was that who she really was?
This question stuck with me over the years and eventually inspired me to write a novel about the Alcott sisters. My research revealed that May Alcott was more than simply the girl who drew on walls. Her story is that of a free thinker who refused to let society’s expectations of 19th-century womanhood define her.
In Little Women, the March family lived in a charming state of genteel poverty, but in reality, the Alcott family was flat out broke. Because of his adherence to Transcendental philosophy Bronson Alcott, Louisa and May’s father, didn’t believe in working for wages. He also didn’t believe in slavery, eating animal products, or barring women from voting. The Alcott girls were encouraged to be educated, physically active, and become active in political and intellectual discussions, but still, the young women were often frustrated by their family’s poverty. This all changed with the publication of Louisa’s novel, Little Women. Suddenly the Alcotts had disposable income and life became more comfortable. With her new earnings, Louisa took May to Europe for a year to travel.
This trip provided an amazing opportunity for May to learn more about art. Up until this point, she had been mostly self-taught. She sketched and took some classes in Boston from several different teachers, but women were only encouraged to study art as a hobby, certainly not as a vocation. And any sort of study of the human form was considered unladylike and could lead to ruin. While landscape and still life sketching were acceptable, portraiture was not because it ran the risk of subjecting women artists to becoming overly familiar with the human form. After all, who knew what could become of a woman who understood what bare legs really looked like? (Seriously, this was a thing. Women sculptors found it even harder to find instruction.) Of course, portraiture was the most lucrative form of painting to make money, so women were excluded from engaging in the type of art that could actually provide a livelihood.
While traveling in Europe with Louisa, May was introduced to art museums, notable architecture, and art in public spaces—all things still largely unknown in mid-19th century America. May soaked up everything she saw in Europe and studied with several notable instructors in both Rome and London. She returned home to find attitudes toward women artists changing. When William Morris Hunt, the renowned painter, decided to offer painting classes to women in Boston, May jumped at the chance to study with him. Out of this class, a small community of women artists developed, and these painters went on to form the backbone of the arts and crafts movement. Though Boston was becoming increasingly conducive to the arts, May longed to leave home and return to the freedom of living in Europe. With some financial assistance from Louisa, she made her way back to London where she continued to develop her art. According to the well-respected art historian and critic John Ruskin, May became the preeminent copyist of J.M.W. Turner’s artwork of their time.
Eventually, she landed in Paris and studied at several notable Parisian ateliers. One of her paintings was accepted at the 1877 Paris Salon, making her the only American woman to have a painting exhibited that year. Despite the expectation of most women to marry and raise a family, May remained focused on her dream of becoming a professional painter and finally reached a point where she was able to support herself.
When she was 38 years old and back to living in London, she met a 22-year old Swiss man and married him after a whirlwind courtship. The two moved to France and lived on the outskirts of Paris where May continued to hone her artistic skills. She created a second painting, a portrait, and it was accepted to the Salon. Afterward, she decided to write a book instructing American women how to study art in Europe and, with connections from her sister, it was published. By all reports, May was extremely happy. She gave birth to a daughter shortly before her 40th birthday, but then tragedy struck. Within weeks of giving birth to a daughter, May died of what was called childbed fever. Her young widowed husband never remarried and held onto most of May’s artwork. At the wishes of his wife, he sent their only daughter to Boston to be raised by Louisa.
Though Louisa is the Alcott daughter with whom most are familiar, May’s life is also extraordinary. Like her sister, she was a forward thinker. Both dared to forge their own paths at a time when women were expected to channel their ambitions into marrying well. In truth, there was nothing little about these women.
Although a New Englander by birth (and at heart), Elise Hooper lives with her husband and two young daughters in Seattle, where she teaches history and literature.
Social media links:
@elisehooper on Twitter and Instagram