Lancaster Digital Collections

My Owl: A Passage from an artist's life abroad

And looking up at my owl always perched on the mantelpiece, I almost believed he winked his approval in answer to the inquiry he read in my eyes, as if to say "Yes I am tired of posing and disgusted with such low aims in art. Go and study the fine collections in this big city, copy the wonderful Turners, sketch on the Thames, paint anything but waste no more time buying bric-a-brac." "

Abigail May Alcott Nieriker
My OwlStill Life with Owl by May Alcott Nieriker, 1877. Oil on canvas. Used by permission of Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House


My Owl is Abigail May Alcott Nieriker's charming short story in which a taxidermized owl becomes a talisman for a young artist trying to make her mark in the Parisian artworld. After purchasing it in a Parisian bric-a-brac shop, the narrator paints a still-life of it. Women artists of this period, like Nieriker, were expected to be copyists and still life painters only. This stifled their ambitions to become well-known artists because of the Hierarchy of Genres, which defined types of art in levels of superiority. Still life and animal paintings were at the bottom of the genre hierarchy (Butterfield-Rosen, 73-4), reducing the chances of having them displayed at the most prestigious exhibition forum (Garb, 26), the Paris Salon, which was the official exhibition of the Beaux-Arts Academy. In My Owl, the protagonist's owl painting is chosen for the Salon. The contradiction of a decidedly low-brow genre painting being in a significant exhibition places the owl at the forefront of the narrative. Nieriker's choice of the owl deliberately evokes a myriad of symbols, which this introduction will explore. The owl's symbolism is open-ended, yet clearly represents the speaker's artistic growth and inner psyche, and markedly encapsulates Nieriker's sisterly relationship.

The taxidermized owl is unquestionably the tangible manifestation of the speaker's psyche. Historically, owls have been representations of introjection, projection, and other mental phenomena (Fernandes), commonly appearing in dreams and other aspects of the projector's subconscious. For example, the Ancient Greeks believed owls were reflections of mythological wisdom, as seen in Book XIV of the Iliad, where Hypnos, disguised as an owl, is sent to turn the tide of the Trojan War (Homer). In a similar way, Nieriker's owl turns the tide in the speaker's artistic career, gaining attention by being displayed in the notoriously unattainable Parisian Salon, where the painting queerly hangs among the numberless nude subjects on the walls (Nieriker). Similarly to Homer's veiled deity, an old folkloric Siberian legend portrays owls as good spirits who help and guide people, especially travellers who wish to reach particular destinations (Weinstein). This legend increases the significance of the owl as a journeying companion in Nieriker's travel narrative. Furthermore, in some areas of India, not only is the owl seen as the Vahana, a divine vehicle in the Hindu religion for a goddess to bring prosperity, but its meat itself is widely consumed as a natural aphrodisiac (Weinstein), possibly reflected in the owl's fate which catalyses the romance between the speaker and the man who tries to save it.

The owl also establishes a dichotomy through vast parallelism in the relationship between Abigail May Alcott Nieriker and her sister Louisa May Alcott. In the text, the speaker's taxidermized owl leads her to become a celebrated woman artist by acting as a muse for her creativity, and also through its humanistic offerings of guidance, for example when it tells her to go and study the finer collections in this big city (Nieriker). The personification of the owl magnifies its ability to express intelligence far beyond other avian species (Morris). This offering of counsel reflects Nieriker's professional relationship with her sister. Louisa May Alcott used the fame she received after publication of Little Women to illuminate the work of Nieriker, regardless of accreditation of work. This highlights a fascinating duality between independence and reliance. The concluding scene of My Owl is symbolic of finality, the ability to progress from her interlinked state with the owl - still offering gratitude to it yet allowing herself to evolve independently. This highlights Nieriker's absence of freedom from Louisa's prominence in the literary field, yet acknowledges her role in Nieriker's journey to literary and artistic prominence, allowing Nieriker to maintain her artistic independence.

Across a range of mythologies, the owl represents two sides of a spectrum - either a sign of good fortune and wisdom, or connected to poor health and witchcraft. In My Owl, Nieriker's owl combines the positive connotations seen across the owl's history with a representation much more personal to her (Lewis). As previously explored, the owl brings good luck and wisdom, somewhat enlightening the speaker's work. However, it also represents her desire to stand out among the other female artists of the time, just as the owl was discovered among other effects of some artist (Nieriker). The owl's role develops throughout the story, going from representing Nieriker's desire to become a successful artist, to being her muse, to being the mentor she outgrows - essentially representing the removal of metaphorical training wheels when the owl is 'killed'. The owl morphs and changes as the speaker needs it to, representing each stage of an artist's journey in each stage of the piece.

The symbolical interpretation of the owl is ambiguous, ultimately foreshadowing the entirety of Nieriker's interdisciplinary career. My Owl, similar to many of the other travel narratives Nieriker wrote, was never published. Though a New Criticism approach, where the interpretation of the owl's symbolism through a structure of interlocking motifs (Frye, 82), expands the reader's perception of the short story's literary merit, a consideration of the autobiographical, cultural, and historical aspects presents a feasible image of Nieriker in future academia. This rebirth of a forgotten artist through literary criticism itself is a symbol of a new era of remembering and reimagining female and interdisciplinary artists. Bullington suggests that Nieriker's full artistic merit did not flourish because of the culturally transitional period for women, writing that historians and scholars largely forgot Nieriker because she was a transitional woman (196). Despite being mostly overlooked, transition ultimately 'makes the product' - signifying an overarching transformational element that is prevalent in the artwork of this period, just as the owl is the catalyst for transformation in the life of the narrator.

Lydia Aellen (Editor), Isobel Dixon, Titas Maksimas, Lili Raynor, Isobel Roberts and Jordyn Smith.


  1. Bullington, Judy, "Inscriptions of Identity: May Alcott as Artist, Woman, and Myth", Prospects, Vol 27, , pp. 177–200
  2. Butterfield-Rosen, Emmelyn, "The Hierarchy of Genres and the Hierarchy of Life-Forms", Res, Vol 73-74, No 1, , pp. 77–93
  3. Frye, Northrop, "Second Essay: Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols", Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, Princeton University Press, , pp. 71-128
  4. Garb, Tamar. Sisters of the Brush: Women's Artistic Culture in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris, Yale University Press,
  5. Homer, Iliad, tr. Peter Jones, Penguin,
  6. Lewis, Deane, "Owls in Mythology and Culture", The Owl Pages, <> [accessed ]
  7. Morris, Desmond, Owl, Reaktion,
  8. Nieriker, Abigail May Alcott, "My Owl", An Artist's Holiday, , transcribed by Azelina Flint, [accessed ]
  9. Weinstein, Krystyna, The Owl in Art, Myth, and Legend, Grange Books,
  10. Wilson Fernandes, Julio, Jung Journal, Taylor & Francis, <> [accessed ]


Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House

Images used by permission of Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House