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The author is a staff member of the William Munroe Special Collections of the Concord Free Public Library
In 1879, May Alcott was thirty-nine years old and her life was blossoming. She was newly wed to a man she adored, living in Meudon, a Paris suburb, and experiencing her first pregnancy. After so many years of cultivating her artistic talent, she had finally arrived at a plateau where her work displayed a maturity and mastery that had eluded her earlier. Years of training, practice, and tutelage in sketching, painting, and sculpture were coming to fruition, and her work had begun to be recognized: John Ruskin had praised her abilities as a Turner copyist (example of her work in the title of this page), and she was chosen to exhibit at the Paris Salon.

At home with her beloved husband, Ernest Nieriker, May at last had her own salon, work that was deeply satisfying, goals and aspirations before her, and a baby on the way. In a letter written home in 1878 she said, "There is not a cloud as big as your hand in my sky." May Alcott was a woman who expected happiness and fulfillment, actively worked toward it, and when it arrived, basked in it.

But it was all too brief. After the birth of her daughter Lulu on November 8, 1879, May did not recover as she should have. After being ill for several weeks, she died, leaving the care of her daughter to her sister, Louisa, for whom the baby was named.

"Lessons, sketching, and her dreams": May Alcott as Artist is the first comprehensive exhibit of the life and work of May Alcott. More than anything else, it is an exploration of the growth of a nineteenth-century woman artist whose career remains forever suspended in time.

The question haunts: Would May have continued her work after her child was born, as she intended to do? Or would motherhood have curtailed her creative efforts? She wrote to her family in 1878, "I mean to combine painting and family, and show that it is a possibility if let alone."

Unfortunately, we shall never know. What we are able to do is trace her artistic development, from the early attempts of a talented girl, painting and sketching home, family, and hometown, to her mid-career efforts as she sought instruction locally from artists such as William Rimmer and, on her first trip to Europe, Thomas Charles Rowbotham, all the while acquiring a surer hand, a clearer focus, and a broader vision as the world opened up before her. By the 1870s, May's work was that of an accomplished artist.

May started with talent, but she was not a prodigy. Her early missteps include her illustrations for the first printing of Little Women (1868) (drawing top right and in the background of this page), which met with harsh criticism, even as her sister gained literary stardom, and a very quirky rendition of Thoreau's Walden hut in Concord Sketches (1869). But these contrast greatly with her later pieces, created during her last sojourn to Europe. In that place, at that time, May came into her own as an artist. Now in her thirties, exposed to European art and culture, and after expert instruction and many years of practice and experience, May's art had matured, as demonstrated in what might be judged her masterpiece, La Négresse, painted in 1879, the year she died. It was shown at the Paris Salon.

Would May have attained the stature of an artist such as Mary Cassatt? The question remains unanswered, but "Lessons, sketching, and her dreams": May Alcott as Artist traces her evolution as an artist and her remarkable life as the youngest daughter of the Alcott family.

Illustration from Little Women drawn by May Alcott

"Lessons, sketching, and her dreams": May Alcott as Artist

A collaborative Concord Free Public Library/Orchard House exhibition Concord Free Public Library Art Gallery
November 3, 2008-January 30, 2009

Free and open to the public during Library hours

Accompanying lecture series (all lectures free; held in the Concord Free Public Library lobby; light refreshments provided):

Saturday, November 22, 2008, 5:00 p.m.:
Daniel Shealy, Professor of English, University of North Carolina, Charlotte; editor, Little Women Abroad: The Alcott Sisters' Letters from Europe, 1870-1871. Lecture title: " 'My real life was beginning': May Alcott's First European Adventure and the Making of an Artist"

Saturday, December 6, 2008, 5:00 p.m.:
John Matteson, Associate Professor of English, John Jay College; author, Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father (winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Biography). Lecture title: " 'The Pure Hope of Giving . . . Pleasure': May Alcott, John Ruskin, and the Moral Aesthetic"

Saturday, January 17, 2009, 5:00 p.m.:
Joel Myerson. Carolina Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of South Carolina; editor/author of numerous publications relating to 19th century American literature, including Studies in the American Renaissance. Lecture title: "Good-bye Concord, Hello London: May Alcott's Studying Art Abroad"

Art Credits: All images courtesy of the William Munroe Special Collections of the Concord Free Public Library, and may not be reproduced without their permission. Page designed by Windfall. Other images courtesy of

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