May Alcott, the real Amy March in Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel Little Women, struggled all her life to win success as an artist.
She stood on the cusp of fulfilling her dream as a successful artist when she died before turning 40. She had published a travel guide for American women to study art in Europe. And she had beaten out Mary Cassatt for a spot in the Paris Salon.
But May Alcott would always be defined by her oldest sister: first as the least likable March sister, Amy, and second as the younger sister of Louisa May Alcott.
Abigail May Alcott was born July 26, 1840 into the eccentric – today we might say ‘progressive’ — Alcott family. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a hopelessly improvident romantic, passionate about social justice and education. Her mother, Abigail, kept the family financially afloat while advocating women’s rights.
She was Louisa May Alcott’s youngest sister. Named after her mother, her family called her Abba and then Abby. In her 20s, she asked to be called May, and her big sister gave her Little Women character an anagram — Amy.
The vain and self-absorbed Amy “was never so happy as when copying flowers, designing fairies, or illustrating stories with queer specimens of art,” wrote Louisa.
The family struggled to survive until Louisa had her blockbuster hit with Little Women. The four Alcott daughters worked as teachers, governesses and servants to support the family, May worked as a teacher at the first Kindergarten founded by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody for a month; later she taught art at the Concord school run by her father’s friend Franklin Sanborn.
Despite her sex and her family’s poverty, she managed to piece together an artistic education. She briefly studied art from three prominent Boston artists: William Rimmer, William Morris Hunt and David Claypoole Johnston.
By 1868, she offered five or six classes in art. Daniel Chester French, who designed the Lincoln Memorial, studied under her.
That year, she illustrated Little Women. But critics panned her work as amateurish and anatomically incorrect. They were right. As a woman, May couldn’t study the human figure. She realized she’d gotten all the art training available in Boston, and dreamed of Europe, with its museums, teachers and opportunities to exhibit in prestigious venue.
Then May and Louisa got the opportunity to go to Europe as travel companions to a wealthy family friend. May developed the confidence to venture out in foreign cities alone, though she carried a dagger with her.
Toward the end of their trip In London, May Alcott found a watercolor teacher under whom she wanted to study. Louisa, flush with cash from Little Women, paid for her to stay on.
May Alcott returned to Concord to take care of family responsibilities – and allow Louisa to write. But soon she was back in Europe, again, thanks to Louisa’s largesse.
She returned home a second time, and established a free art center in Concord, which won her praise from her mother. “Noble girl,” wrote Abigail Alcott.
May later encouraged women of modest means like herself to travel to Europe to pursue an art career.
She began to come into her own on her third trip to Europe. She wrote a travel guide, released by her sister’s publisher.
Studying Art Abroad, and How to Do It Cheaply, advocated equal opportunity in art training for women.
“Art is so over-talked and over-written at the present time,” May Alcott wrote in her first chapter, “but none of these writers report the actual cost of living, instruction, or rent of studio abroad; or how one in search of such can most easily and economically obtain them, in order to realize the desire of one’s heart.”
Her art had developed beyond the student exercises she produced under her teachers and she began to enjoy some success.
May Alcott Nieriker
The next year, at the age of 38, her life took a turn. She married Ernest Nieriker, a 22-year-old Swiss tobacco merchant, and they moved to a Paris suburb. According to Louisa, she seemed so happy her family couldn’t object to her marrying someone 16 years younger.
The next year, the prestigious Paris Salon again accepted her work, the study, La Negresse.
But then she got pregnant, and she died in childbirth at the age of 39 on Dec. 29, 1879. Her husband gave their daughter, Louisa or Lulu, to Aunt Louisa to raise.
Today, May Alcott is remembered as the model for Amy March, not for her art nor for her advocacy for women’s artists. Most of her art is exhibited at Orchard House, the girls’ childhood home, billed as the Little Women Museum.
This story was updated in 2021.