Lancaster Digital Collections

My Owl

...the owl became a dignified addition to our circle and just at a most exciting period for both native and foreign artists in Paris... "

May Alcott Nieriker
My OwlCopy of Turner's Burial at sea by May Alcott Nieriker, 1873. Oil on canvas. Used by permission of Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House


May Alcott Nieriker, also known as Abigail May Alcott Nieriker, was an artist and writer known most commonly as the basis for the character Amy March in her older sister's widely successful novel Little Women. However, Nieriker was an artist in her own right, acting as a driving force for many of the American female artists of the late nineteenth century with her guidebook on travelling abroad as an artist. Many of her other works, including My Owl act as semiautobiographical - or fully autobiographical - accounts of her time as an artist in Europe.

May Alcott Nieriker was a woman of great achievements; she was an extremely talented artist, writer and activist. The majority of her work came after her move from Concord, Massachusetts to Europe, where she lived and worked as an artist. As Daniel Shealy says, Europe allowed May Alcott to live the existence she had always dreamed of, an artistic life filled with sketching, painting, music, and family. It was, indeed, a new beginning, a chance to cast off the old customs and habits of the United States (xl). In fact, Nieriker wrote herself in one of her letters home, if woman wants a new lease of life let her come here (qtd. in Flint 53). It is clearly evident in her writing, as well as the work produced abroad such as My Owl, that Nieriker wished to leave behind her old life and be independent, something which for women at the time was hard to do.

Besides her role as inspiration in her sister's book, Nieriker is most recognised for her paintings, which played an important role for empowering women at the time. She thereafter wrote about her travels as an artist in the hopes of aiding women like herself. She produced a significant body of personal writing in the form of letters and journals (Daly-Galeano 127) and in just before her death she published the guidebook titled Studying Art Abroad and how to Do it Cheaply. This guidebook received many positive reviews from readers, with many women being inspired by Nieriker, one reporter stating that many American women were taking advantage of Alcott Nieriker's advice (qtd. in Daly-Galeano 127). Nieriker states in the first chapter of the book how none of these writers report the actual cost of living, instruction, or rent of studio when talking about studying art abroad, and this was something that her audience loved (5).

Nieriker's work, and her hopes to be an artist in her own right, were affected by the climate of art during the nineteenth century. At the time she was working as an artist, a woman's right to claim art for herself was complex, even ambivalent (Garb 3) - despite this, women were starting to make prominent names for themselves within the art scene. Nieriker herself was privately educated at the Académie Julian, a school which aimed to prepare students for entry into École des Beaux Arts (Rowe 523). Here, women were not met without significant challenges: not only was she paying double that of her male counterparts, but the idea of women being educated at École des Beaux Arts wasn’t even considered until 1889 (Garb 70-81). Nieriker, then, was aiming only to develop herself as an artist, perhaps as a result of the desire to attain freedom from social constraints that was so prevalent in her life (Bullington 179). In Nieriker's desire to attend the school, despite the difficulties of being a female artist at the time, it is evident that she wished to develop herself as an artist, despite the constrictions of her education and the political climate.

May Alcott Nieriker's manuscript, My Owl, is significant because it broadens the accessibility of May's works and represents her struggle for independent recognition as an artist. Being the sister of the famous Louisa May Alcott, Nieriker's work is often forgotten, or her art is not recognised as belonging to her. Initially, My Owl was stored by the Harvard Houghton Library under Louisa May Alcott's additional papers, since Nieriker does not have her own archives. This, combined with the surrounding question as to the credit and origins of this manuscript, is representative of Nieriker's lack of recognition as an artist within her own right.

The manuscript was supposedly discovered within a larger manuscript of Nieriker's - An Artists Holiday. Chapters 1 and 6, as designated by the Houghton Library, are written in the handwriting of Louisa May Alcott and this casts doubt over the provenance of works attributed to Nieriker. Daly-Galeano categorises An Artists Holiday as cowritten (129), but all of the sources within the wider manuscript draw on events from Nieriker's life, suggesting that Alcott may have simply helped Nieriker record these events and used her fame to help with her sister's publicity, which she is known to have done with other works (Dabbs 66-67).

Having been found within An Artist Holiday, the intentions for My Owl are uncertain. It is not listed on the contents table, but was included with the manuscript, which also details Nieriker's life studying abroad – particularly her first trip to London in around 1873.

It is with this information that we encourage you to conclude for yourself whether it should be included within the wider collection or if it should have its own recognition as an independent piece. We also urge you to consider the achievements of May Alcott Nieriker and hope that you too find that she deserves to be recognised for her work as an independent artist rather than an extension of her sister.

Amber Fox (Editor), Lily Bliss, Keisha Chadwick and Mia Saltmarsh.


  1. Bullington, Judy, 'Inscriptions of Identity: May Alcott as Artist, Woman, and Myth', Prospects, Vol 27, No 1,
  2. Dabbs, Julia. May Alcott Nieriker, Author and Advocate: Travel Writing and Transformation in the Late Nineteenth-Century, Anthem Press,
  3. Daly-Galeano, Marlowe, "Disciplinary Conversations: May Alcott Nieriker’s 'An Artists Holiday'", The Forgotten Alcott, eds. Azelina Flint and Lauren Hehmeyer, Routledge, 2022, pp. 127-142.
  4. Flint, Azelina. "'Successive Chapters in a Romance': May Alcott Nieriker's Influence on the Development of the Woman Artist in Louisa May Alcott's Fiction", The Forgotten Alcott, eds. Azelina Flint and Lauren Hehmeyer, Routledge, , pp. 42-61
  5. Garb, Tamar, Sisters of the Brush: Women's Artistic Culture in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris, Yale University Press,
  6. Nieriker, May Alcott. Studying Art Abroad, and How to Do It Cheaply. Boston: Roberts Brothers,
  7. Rowe, Dorothy, "Overcoming All Obstacles: The Women of the Académie Julian", Women's Studies International Forum, eds. Gabriel P. Weisberg and Jane R. Becker, Vol 23, No 4, Pergamon, , pp.523-524
  8. Shealy, Daniel, "'Concordia's Queen': May Alcott And The Town Of Concord", The Forgotten Alcott, eds. Azelina Flint and Lauren Hehmeyer, Routledge , pp.25-42


Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House

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