Packing up my colors in a discontented mood, I went toward home, when on entering the Salon having about decided to devote this lesson to a careful study of the Rembrandts in the Louvre, so recommended by all the French masters in one's education, I happened to glance up at my feathered friend in the corner when the thought struck me, why not paint him? "
Abigail May Alcott Nieriker
Introduction to the Manuscript
My Owl, by the forgotten Alcott sister Abigail May
Alcott Nieriker, is a powerful proto-feminist text, due to her unique
viewpoint in the eclectic circle of independent female artists of
1870's Paris. May's manuscript unequivocally encapsulates
power of delineating the enchanting
views and objects of her life alone in Europe, a
'power' that reveals great literary talent (Shealy, xvii).
Her literature is fortified and complemented by her work as a
successful artist in the Paris Salons of 1877 and 1879, which
parallels the symbolic journey of the speaker in the manuscript. In
the text, the owl could be principally interpreted as a muse for
May's creativity, as it personifies the voice of a mentor until
the speaker has the confidence to paint independently. This mirrors
May's own progression from art student to inspirational mentor
of female artists in her only publicised book-length text,
Studying Art Abroad and How to Do It
Cheaply (). At the
pinnacle of her career, shortly after writing My Owl,
May was successfully balancing married life and artistic innovation,
until her tragic death in . Her
incredible art - along with her powerful literature - has long been
overshadowed by the work of her famous sister
Louisa May Alcott. The fame of
Little Women contributed to May being
overlooked, even after the discovery of the My Owl
manuscript amongst another manuscript named
An Artists Holiday, found in Louisa's
papers. Nonetheless, Abigail May Alcott Nieriker is beginning to be
recognised as just as talented, and even more revolutionary, than her
My Owl begins in Paris, where May discovers a stuffed
owl in a bric-a-brac store. The
noble owl later becomes the
subject of a still-life painting by May, and her artwork is
subsequently accepted into the Paris Salon of
My Owl details May's journey and growth as an
artist in Paris and London, encapsulating her artistic abilities and
her love for travel. The exact intended chronology of
My Owl is uncertain; the manuscript was grouped together
with another one of May's unpublished works,
An Artists Holiday, yet appears to take place four years
later (Daly-Galeano "Disciplinary").
Through My Owl, May
plays with the boundaries between the real and the fictitious,
merging her real-life experience as an artist abroad with fictional
elements. While she was accepted into the
Paris Salon in
in real life, it was for her still
life painting of fruits and bottle, as opposed to her owl still life.
My Owl captures May's sharp-witted disposition
through her ability to adapt to European society at a time where
female artists were presented with few opportunities to hone and
display their craft, whilst also reflecting May's independence
and her talent in the arts and literature outside of the shadow of
her sister and her literary counterpart, Amy March
The semi-autobiographical nature of My Owl gives insight
into May's unconventional life and relationship with the art
world, establishing her as an intriguing individual worthy of
recovery. The owl itself symbolises May's fighting artistic
surprise and admiration in finding something so
rubbish (Ticknor, 207)
represents the struggle for women to obtain opportunities in a male
dominated art culture. Like the owl, her ability to gain a formal art
education as a woman, is decidedly rare (Hehmeyer, 319). Both the
text and real-life version of May inhabit a complicated,
transformative space in the art world. She brings the taxidermized
owl to life through her painting, representing a transcendence of
artistic gender convention. Female artists were often limited to
still-life and copying (Hehmeyer); painting live animals increased
the status of May's work in the artistic hierarchy. May was also
a copyist for Turner, putting her own creative stamp on his work
(Matteson). It was claimed in a newspaper clipping that Ruskin felt
no one, but May, was worthy of this role (Flint 2018, 54), a
ground-breaking achievement for a woman of the period. While
May's transcendence of typical categorisation has made her
difficult to place in the canon, it renders her a fascinating artist
who is worthy of study.
However, it must be acknowledged that, without the fame of her sister Louisa, May's work probably would not have been recovered. Female artists in the nineteenth century struggled to access the money and connections needed to become well-known artists; Louisa's success provided May with these things. It was the money Louisa made from Little Women that funded May's first trip to Europe, which inspired and motivated May and her goals for the rest of her life. It was through her sister's publications that May's writing was shared: parts of An Artists Holiday were published under Louisa's name - presumably with May's consent (Flint 2022). And it is the collaborative nature of An Artists Holiday that is likely the reason the manuscript was preserved as microfilm; Louisa's handwriting on the manuscript would have convinced scholars of a value they wouldn't have seen otherwise (Daly-Galeano Interview). It is true that Louisa's work greatly overshadows May's, but we must remember all the female artists of the nineteenth century whose lives and works have been entirely forgotten. Whilst May deserves recognition for her own works, we cannot - and should not - ignore the hand Louisa has had in her recognition, both historically and in the present.
In summary, My Owl provides a semi-autobiographical insight into May Alcott Nieriker's forgotten life. The story blends the line between the fictitious and the real by intertwining May's real life, providing an element of realism which demonstrates the nuance and talent of May Alcott Nieriker. Throughout its relatively sparse wordcount, the work provides a unique perspective of an independent female artist in 1870s helping to establish My Owl, and May herself, as a proto-feminist text and proto-feminist writer respectively. As such it is a disappointment that May Alcott Nieriker was abandoned by the canon as her work transcends the works of her contemporaries, both male and female. This edition of My Owl also enables May Alcott Nieriker to be separated and individualised from her sister Louisa which helps to demystify the publication confusion surrounding both May Alcott and Louisa. It is undoubtable that Louisa helped to provide a platform for May Alcott Nieriker whilst also playing a crucial role within the shaping and creation of her sister's work. Overall, this edition of My Owl provides a perfect opportunity to revitalise and reinterpret May for the twenty-first century, whilst being able to appreciate the simplistic beauty of her tale. It also offers the ability to make up for the misdoings of our literary ancestors by providing May Alcott Nieriker the attention and respect she rightly deserves.
- Blewett, Kelly, What Greta Gerwig Got Right: Rethinking Amy March in Light of May Alcott Nieriker (Los Angeles Review of Books, ) [accessed ].
- Daly-Galeano, Marlowe. "Disciplinary Conversations: May Alcott Nieriker's ‘An Artist's Holiday’". The Forgotten Alcott, eds. Azelina Flint and Lauren Hehmeyer. Routledge, , pp. 127-142.
- ---. Interview. Conducted by Azelina Flint, . Retrieved from University of Lancaster Moodle - Panopto
- Flint, Azelina. "Her lovely presence ever near me lives: A Brief Encounter from the Archives with May Alcott Nieriker". Brief Encounters, Vol 2, No 1, , pp.53-68.
- ---. Lecture, . Retrieved from University of Lancaster Moodle - Panopto
- Hehmeyer, Lauren. "Armed with a Brush: May Alcott Nieriker as Representative Woman Artist in Paris". The Forgotten Alcott, eds. Azelina Flint and Lauren Hehmeyer, Routledge, , pp.79-91.
- ---. "Let the World Know You Are Alive: May Alcott Nieriker and Louisa May Alcott Confront Nineteenth-Century Ideas about Women's Genius", American Studies Journal, No 66,
- Matteson, John. "'The Pure Hope of Giving ... Pleasure': May Alcott, John Ruskin and the Moral Aesthetic" The Forgotten Alcott, eds. Azelina Flint and Lauren Hehmeyer, Routledge, , pp.191-207.
- Nieriker, May Alcott. Studying Art Abroad, and How to Do It Cheaply. Boston: Roberts Brothers, .
- Shealy, Daniel. "Introduction." Little Women Abroad: The Alcott sisters' letters from Europe, 1870-1871. Louisa May Alcott and May Alcott University of Georgia Press. Athens & London, 2008, pp.xv-lxxiii
- Ticknor, Caroline. May Alcott: A Memoir, . Reprint, Applewood Books, n.d.