I loved this section that I read in Carolyn Ticknor’s May Alcott A Memoir this morning. It details how May, while visiting the small village of Grez in France ( the latest mecca for artists), ran into a 14 year old fan of Little Women. Having read before how Louisa May Alcott was the first author to have experienced mass media-type fame (not unlike Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling), it follows then that her family members would be considered celebrities too. It never really occurred to me until I read this passage:
(the letter comes from an Isobel Osbourne ne: Mrs. Salisbury Field, and it was written in July of 1926, recounting that summer of 1877 chance encounter)
” I distinctly remember meeting her [May Alcott] at Julien’s studio, in the old Passage des Panormas, off the Boulevard des Italiens. I was very young them and of course had read and adored Little Women, and I was thrilled when told that the tall, distinguished-looking lady, who wore her hair in curls, was ‘Amy’ of that beloved family. I gazed at her with awe and admiration, just a little disenchanted to find her grown-up and reserved. I know I asked her several questions diffidently, and she answered kindly, but in a bored manner as though she had heard them very often before, ‘Yes, Laurie was a real person.’ ‘No, she did not marry him,’ that sort of thing.
As I remember her through such a mist of years, she was tall, very slender and graceful, and wore her hair in long curls down her back, rather unusual fashion even for those days. I was much interested in her, but she naturally was not particularly interested in a young person of fourteen, who stared at her with absorbed attention an asked all the usual questions. As I said, we left Grez before 1879, but she knew my mother at Julien’s studio, for I often saw them talking together.”
It reminded me of how I felt looking at May Alcott Nieriker’s room at Orchard House and seeing her pencil drawings on the walls of her room. I too had that same feeling of awe.
Just a quickie today, saw this on Kelly O’Connor McNees’ Twitter page – a link to Oprah’s summer reading section (kudos to McNees – well done on your first novel!). Might be interesting to answer some of these questions and post responses with your comments. Let’s go for it – http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/The-Lost-Summer-of-Louisa-May-Alcott-Reading-Group-Guide
I plan to write more later on this book – it’s what got me started on this latest reading binge. A perfect beginning-of -the-summer read.
Caroline Ticknor pointed out something key to May Alcott Nieriker’s success in life, both as a person and an artist – “It was characteristic of the aspiring artist form Concord to make the most of her opportunities and much of May’s so-called ‘good luck’ was traceable to the alacrity with which she seized upon each chance that came her way, and did her best to guide the ‘moving finger’ which was tracing her line of fate.” (pg. 180, May Alcott A Memoir)
Then Ticknor relayed a charming incident (written by May) that was typical of May’s ‘seizing the moment’ mentality:
“When we got to the studio, we found that is was M. Müller’s day for visiting and criticizing. Then I regretted I hadn’t known of it and brought my still-life for his opinion, but remembering how a few moments it would take to run back and get, it, I instantly resolved to do so and let his decision settle my doubts as to its real merit.
When I got back he was talking with M. Krug in his studio, apart from ours, and I timidly produced my little group of simple objects coming naturally together as they did on our dining-room table. What was my astonishment and perfect delight when he overwhelmed me with praises, saying it was worthy of a pupil of the great still-life painter here (whose name I can’t spell), and said he couldn’t have done it better himself, and that I must send it to the Salon, and he should be proud to have me write myself as his élève, or pupil. Krug stood beaming upon me and was pleased at the master’s praise, saying, I must at least try and get it exhibited. Müller said: ‘Take that into the other studio and show these ladies what, painting simply what you see instead of trying to make a picture, will do even without great practice in color.’ Then he looked and looked again, and repeated over and over again, ‘Très bien, très bien, Mlle. Alcott, you cannot do better than go on doing just such things.’ ” (bold is my emphasis, pg. 181)
I used to take art classes in high school but didn’t have a real talent for art, just a flair. But I have a hint of an artist’s eye, sometimes looking at scenes and envisioning what a great painting or photograph it would make if I had the talent. I see now from that description how May’s appreciation for beauty was the key element in her artistic talent. She knew intuitively what to do in order to create a moment.
It seemed to give her a greater confidence and when you have that kind of confidence in your ability, good luck does tend to follow you.
I can hardly wait to read May’s letters about her paintings actually being displayed at the Salon! Her letters draw me into her consciousness.
p.s. I wish there were photos of some of her paintings on the internet but I’ve yet to find any. If anyone can find one online, please comment here so we can see. Thanks!
I have decided to close the group page for Louisa May Alcott is My Passion on Facebook and open a Community page instead – it affords many more options. If you joined my group page on Facebook, can you please take a moment to go to that page and click “Like” at the top to join? Here’s the link: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Louisa-May-Alcott-is-My-Passion/138623432845648?v=wall
Tell your friends to come on over too. Thanks!
I’m reading the chapter entitled “Marmee’s Journal” from Caroline Ticknor’s May Alcott A Memoir; this journal was written in the last year of Mrs. Alcott’s life. There were several little things I noticed that I wanted to share.
First, there was an excerpt from one of May’s letters about an episode in her drawing class. The school often used models and that day they had used a black man who had been in the Crimean War, “decorated for his courage and considered one of the best models in Paris.” (from May’s letter, pg. 165). What I found interesting was that May’s belief that the races were equal was so genuine that it would be vividly demonstrated in her artwork. Here’s another excerpt from that letter:
“Müller [an established artist who came to critique the drawings of the students] said: ‘With what passion and enthusiasm you draw this ensemble; it is very vigorous and shows your interest and not scorn of the race.’ I couldn’t answer him, as this was all said in French, but it amused the class as I, among them, had pretty freely expressed my admiration for him, besides fighting the battle of the blacks versus the whites, whenever the question came up between the Southerners, of whom there are three in the class, and two of us Northerners. I am proud that he proves my part of the proposition, as most true, for he is the most gentlemanly, polite and delicate model that we have had.” (pg. 164)
Indeed, pictures do paint a thousand words! Her title of the pictures, by the way, was the “Prince of Timbuctoo.”
Later in the chapter, Marmee writes about Louisa’s success. I loved how she described the way Louisa wrote for young people. You can see where the writing talent came from:
“We are glad to get her [Louisa] back amongst us this dreary weather, it creates a new atmosphere in the house, and we feel more protected when she is about us. She seems quite well and happy. Her success in writing is quite remarkable, and her reputation is made for all future time, as the best writer for young people since Miss Edgeworth and Mrs. Barbauld. She infuses her morals so skillfully and her ethical machinery is so gracefully concealed by the clinging drapery of love, or the thick foliate of events, that her characters blossom out upon you with a new grace and beauty as well as being truthful to the Life.” (pg. 173)
I found it interesting too how Mrs. Alcott mentioned that having Louisa around made them feel “safe,” exactly what Louisa wanted. It had to give Louisa great satisfaction that she succeeded so well in giving her mother the peaceful and safe life she so richly deserved, even if it was at a great cost.
How fortunate us Alcott enthusiasts are that there is so much primary source reading on these folks!
I got a response to my question about the search for current Alcott family members from someone in my Louisa May Alcott Facebook group. She writes;
… I read here in the Acknowledgments of Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs that here’s some folks you may want to look up: “For material in this biography, thanks are due, personally, for verbal information from Mrs. Alcott Pratt of Concord, Massachusetts, daughter-in-law of Anna Alcott Pratt”; the other names might not be related?– Miss Clare Endicott Sears of Boston (http://www.fruitlands.org/ces), Miss Sarah Niles of Arlington, etc.
. . .The author – Cornelia Meigs – also acknowledges some other authors: Louisa M. Alcott, Her Life, Letters and Journals, edited by Ednah Cheney, The Alcotts As I Knew Them by Clara Gowing, Recollections of Louisa M. Alcott by Maria S. Porter, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands by Clara Endicott Sears, A. Bronson Alcott: His Life and Philosophy by F.B. Sanborn and William T. Harris, and Honor to Louisa Alcott by One Who Knew Her by Julian Hawthorne in the N.Y. Times.
If you’re into serious reading or want to get into it and are a neophyte (like me :-)), check out Silver Threads. This site has some terrific recommendations!
The more I read of Caroline Ticknor’s May Alcott A Memoir, the more I like May Alcott Nieriker (and Ticknor obviously did too). I just read a section in Ticknor’s book where May was in London with friends and wanted to go rowing. Apparently in that day and age, it was not proper for well-bread ladies to go rowing by themselves in public, but only in private near their homes. I love how May enjoyed bucking the tide, and doing it with a sense of humor:
(from pages 115-116 May Alcott A Memoir by Caroline Ticknor, talking about taking row boat out on the river by herself)
“Then it was that the full audacity of my project dawned upon the party, for having explained that I proposed being skipper, coxswain, oarsman, all in one, horror fell upon all my friends. With the utmost politeness they explained that though ladies rowed in England, it was always in the chaste seclusion of ‘Papa’s grounds’, or some more retired portion of the river than that now before us.
But the boating fever was on me, and I could no more keep from the water than a Newfoundland dog. With a naughty satisfaction in asserting my Yankee independence, I boldly replied to their gentle hints and kindly advice:
‘Very well: if you don’t like to go, I’ll go alone, for a row in the Rose I must have, in remembrance of my own boat and the quiet river at home.’
Resolutely stepping in, and feathering my oars in my most scientific manner, I pulled vigorously up the stream, with true Harvard stroke, as nearly as one of the uninitiated can hope to come to.
Wasn’t it lovely? And didn’t I enjoy the exercise? For after weeks of painting, my arms positively reveled in a study pull, and got it too, as the current was strong and all England looking on. Yes, utterly regardless of the chaff of the boys, the dismay of my lady friends, and the amusement of gentlemen ditto, I heartily enjoyed the brief trip.”
She had that ‘can do’ attitude that I see in a couple of my friends, and that I love so much.
She was also sweet and giving. I enjoyed how she created paintings to give to the Emersons for their home, especially as to how she used the color scheme of a particular room for a painting for Lydia Emerson. Very thoughtful, and much appreciated, as seen by their thank you notes in the book (pg. 118-119).
May carried out a microcosm of her dream of creating a place where less fortunate people could partake in the beauty of art through her art studio in Concord center.
Yup. I would have loved being friends with May Alcott Nieriker!
In reading May’s accounts of her travels and adventures, and hearing how other family members saw her, it occurs to me that May Alcott Nieriker is the first artist I’ve ever ‘met’ that didn’t have the artist temperament.
How do I know? I should know, I’ve been ‘blessed’ with one. :-) My art teacher in 9th grade whom I greatly respected, wrote on my report card that I had one. Years later I met a photographer at a newspaper I worked at. This teacher had acted as his mentor; my photographer friend was deeply impressed that this teacher bestowed such an honor on me.
And what is the artist temperament? Someone who has this temperament tends to be very sensitive and emotional. Life is a constant series of storms and calm seas, back & forth and back & forth. You’re plagued with doubts and insecurities; you’re driven by your passions. You get lost in your creative moment and that’s how you create art or music or literature. Finding balance and peace can be a real challenge.
I find my artist temperament to be a bit scary so I back off from it when I see it coming. That’s probably why I’ve never created anything I consider to be artistically significant. It changes me into someone I don’t want to know, and believe me, nobody else wants to know me either!
Sound familiar? It should to anyone familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s life of turbulence. She was given a king-sized dose of artist temperament. Unlike me, she wasn’t afraid to embrace it. Her description of the vortex she would enter when writing sometimes sounds very tempting to enter into. I’ve only allowed that to happen over the course of a few hours and it is exhilarating, at the time. After I come out of it, I’m irritable, more self-centered than usual, inpatient, and hard to live with. Remembering Louisa’s ‘mood’ pillow (love that idea!), our favorite author had that problem in a big way.
I have since found that age and the deepening of my faith in God has helped to calm the waters and I’m happy with that.
And what of May? She seems to have been spared this temperament, despite the fact that she was a gifted artist, very focused, ambitious, devoted to her studies and her work. How did she ever pull it off? That would have been a great story to chronicle! I do believe she was born under a lucky star – lucky in that she inherited the best of her parents’ genes. While Anna and Lizzie had too much of Bronson in them (the placid part), Louisa had too much of Abby. May had a good measure of both – the fierce life force of Abby, smoothed over by the serenity that was Bronson, while getting the gift of art from both. Now that’s a lucky break!