History may be most intriguing when we look past selected stars to the constellations of people who made up the daily lives of the famous. As my friends know, I’ve been obsessed with Louisa May Alcott since I first read Little Women. As an adult, I grew curious about her friends and family, particularly the youngest sister in that novel. In real life, was May really such an affected niminy-piminy chit as her sister depicted? Not at all. And how did May feel about Louisa describing a young woman, whose name she rearranged into Amy, as “a commonplace dauber” who gave up art in order to marry the writer’s cast-off beau? I wrote Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, to answer that question and more.
In the mid-nineteenth century, many prominent citizens of Concord, Massachusetts cared much more about language than color and form. I admired the way May kept painting in a time and place that didn’t have much use for art. During Women’s History Month, which gives us a chance to celebrate those who were overlooked, here are seven more reasons why everyone should know about this woman born 175 years ago.
# 1 Louisa May Alcott was her sister and rival.
For more years than most who’ve read Little Women would guess, Louisa and May were both single women working outside the home, bonding over their desire for fame and fortune. How did May respond when her sister, at age thirty-five, and after about twenty years of professional writing, won the acclaim and money they both craved? There’s a lot to that story, including a little treachery, but I’ll just say here that May showed a good amount of grace.
# 2 Henry David Thoreau taught May to observe closely.
Before Henry David Thoreau built and moved into his cabin at Walden Pond, he was a teacher. His lessons included not just reading and writing, but walks in woods and meadows. The Alcott children were among his students. May likely was inspired by his insistence on long quiet observation, necessary for both naturalists and artists.
# 3 Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne were May’s neighbors.
When the Alcott family lived in Orchard House in the 1860’s, the Hawthornes lived next door. May might have had her fill of writers, but she was interested in Sophia’s paintings. She knew that Sophia worked much less after marrying Nathaniel and bowed to her husband’s belief that it was unseemly for a wife to sell her work. May must have watched the ways that Sophia both managed and failed to find a balance between making art, helping a husband who adored her, and raising children, one of whom would court May.
The Hawthorne’s only son may have been a model for the boy next door in Little Women. Like Laurie, Julian was handsome, spoiled, lazy, and charming. His family wasn’t as wealthy, but when the Hawthornes returned from years spent in Europe to move back into the house next door to the Alcotts, they brought an air of sophistication, as well as marble for the mantelpieces. We can’t know exactly what passed between May and Julian during the years of their off-and-on flirtations, but Julian’s memoirs, which include an episode of rowing at dawn to watch lilies open on the Concord River, make it clear he never forgot her.
# 4 May taught one of the country’s most admired sculptors.
Daniel Chester French was a ho-hum student at MIT when his hopeful father, noting his son’s talent for carving parsnips and sculpting snow, asked May if she’d give him a few art lessons. May taught Dan techniques such as how to make armatures from pipes and wires to hold up slick clay. When the town of Concord wanted a statue of a minuteman for the river, Dan was asked, though he was still in his mid-twenties and had no particular experience. He also worked for free. Since models weren’t available in the small town, Dan borrowed a long mirror and a statue of Apollo from the Boston Athenaeum to complete his work that many admire near the Concord River.
After sculpting that bronze sculpture, he’d go on to create hundreds more statues, including the large marble tribute to a president in Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial. He built that in Chesterwood, his home in the Berkshires, which is now open to the public and displays his tribute to May.
#5 May was an acclaimed copyist of J. M. W. Turner.
Turner’s landscapes and seascapes helped May see the natural world as dynamic, and showed her a way to paint with looser strokes. While living in London in the 1870’s, she got a pass to work in a room in the National Gallery where Turner’s watercolors were kept in long drawers to protect them from light and moisture. A caretaker took out these one a time for May and other copyists who painted at a long table, then sold their work to tourists.
The copies she made were admired by John Ruskin, one of the most influential art critics of the day, who’d helped manage the care and placement of Turner’s over 19,000 paintings and drawings after the artist’s death. May likely admired the way Ruskin’s vision of the function of art extended beyond the pleasure or meaning to be found in galleries and museums. He wrote: “There is no wealth but Life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration.”
# 6 May was a friend of Mary Cassatt.
Mary Cassatt’s father, a successful Philadelphia businessman, thought Paris was no place for a woman to live alone, so Mary suggested he, her mother, and sister come live with her. Paris was the only place she could paint. The family shared an apartment and expenses, though sales of Mary’s paintings paid for her studio.
May Alcott and Mary Cassatt bonded as two single American women in their thirties painting in Paris. They met at the Cassatt’s Thursday teas, visited galleries together, and rode horse-pulled carriages through the parks. There’s no record of their conversations, though we might assume topics were much like that of other women artists: bold colors, brands of paints, reviews that missed the mark, babies, macarons, death, and love.
Statistics from the National Museum of Women in the Arts show it’s still hard for women to achieve recognition. Friendships help.
# 7 May had the courage to paint even if she didn’t create a masterpiece.
May was a good, though not great artist, which feels especially refreshing when seen from a culture obsessed with achievement over progress or happiness. May kept making art though she won few awards, and taught others. She painted to see the world more clearly.
Of course I can find at least twice as many reasons to know May Alcott, and the historical record can’t answer everything. You’ll find the novelist’s view I brought to these relationships in Little Woman in Blue. Many thanks to those of you who’ve read it!