Nieriker, Abigail May Alcott
NIERIKER, Abigail May Alcott
Born 26 July 1840, Concord, Massachusetts; died 29 December 1879, outside Paris, France
Daughter of Amos B. and Abigail May Alcott; married Ernst Nieriker; children: one daughter
Fiercely independent and determined to make her own mark in life, Abigail May Alcott Nieriker would be put out to discover she is remembered today not as an accomplished artist but as the blonde and graceful "Amy" of her sister Louisa's Little Women. By the time Nieriker, "the lucky child," was growing up, Alcott family fortunes were brightening. Louisa could afford to provide her with the best art training Boston had to offer and later to help subsidize her studies in London, Paris, and Rome.
In the spring of 1877, Nieriker achieved her first major success as an artist when a small still-life was accepted by the same Paris salon that rejected two paintings by her friend Mary Cassatt. It was strong proof, crowed Nieriker, "that Lu does not monopolize all the Alcott talent." She would exhibit again at the 1879 salon.
At thirty-eight, Nieriker married a Swiss businessman and amateur musician 16 years her junior. Less than two years later, she died at her home near Paris shortly after giving birth to a daughter, Louisa, whom she bequeathed to the care of her sister. Back in Massachusetts, the Concord Art Center, established at Nieriker's instigation, remained as a memorial to the young woman her neighbor Daniel Chester French recalled was "full of the joy of living."
Though not primarily a writer, Nieriker wrote occasional personal essays and one delightful book, Studying Art Abroad, and How To Do It Cheaply (1879). This high-spirited guide, intended for American women artists of limited means, is a charming mixture of pragmatism and romanticism. Pack cheap underclothes, later "invaluable as paint rags," Nieriker recommends, and in Warwick, "board at the baker's for an absurdly low price instead of following all the world to the Warwick Arms." The ruined castle of Kenilworth, on the other hand, with its "crumbling walls and winding stairs," inspires Nieriker to soaring flights of historical fancy.
Studying Art Abroad is sprightly social history, imbued throughout with the author's strong, essentially feminist sense of self. In some ways it corrects, in others confirms, the picture of the American girl abroad as given in Daisy Miller, published the same year.
This work by Bronson Alcott's youngest child adds a new dimension to our understanding of Concord's transcendental community; and for those interested in Louisa Alcott, it is of special value. In its expansiveness and sense of adventure, as well as in the rich experience it draws on, Studying Art Abroad demonstrates Nieriker's escape from the code of selflessness governing Louisa's life, and documents the fantasies Louisa had to put aside.
Finally, however, Nieriker's deepest appeal is not so much to scholars as to the generations of women who have shared her childhood. As Amy March, Nieriker has become a part of American folklore.
Ticknor, C., May Alcott: A Memoir (1928).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).