May Alcott Nieriker’s True Contribution to Art

Lincoln Memorial Statue by Daniel Chester French
Lincoln Memorial Statue by Daniel Chester French, a student of May Alcott Nieriker

I particularly appreciated a paragraph I read in today in May Alcott A Memoir by Caroline Ticknor where she summarized May’s true contribution to the art world. Here’s what she said: (page 225-226)

“These slender links that bind May Alcott to the little group [in Grez, a small French village that proved to be a mecca for artists] that was to create in America an era of art are well worthy of preservation, for she shared in a dream that all the others of that group determined “should come true.” She was not destined to aid it as extensively as many, but from the first her heart was with them, and by her influence more than by her creative work she helped to bring about results for which we should be truly grateful. The Concord Art Center, which she established; the lump of clay that she gave to Daniel Chester French; the classes that she taught; her little book [How to Study Art Abroad, and Do it Cheaply, available on GoogleBooks], instructing young art students regarding life and opportunities abroad; and lastly her own excellent productions which,  had she lived, might have fulfilled those high hopes cherished by her family, and by herself — all contributed to our national heritage in the art world.”

I remember a couple of scenes  from the movie Amadeus where an aged, and insane,  Antonio Salieri said these lines:

“All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing… and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?”

“You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation.”

Now granted, Salieri was literally insane with jealousy (and who knows how much of this was actually true) but these lines really resonated with me because I felt sorry that Salieri could not appreciate that he could see what apparently no one else could – the genius that was Mozart. He could not be happy with helping to make great things happen without necessarily attaining the glory for himself.

Although May wanted the glory too, she also was happy to “make things happen” for others, and she enjoyed seeing the great potential for artistic talent. If she had not been a mentor to Daniel Chester French, there might have been no Lincoln Memorial. If she hadn’t started the art school in Concord, countless local artists might never have realized their vocations. She not only enjoyed creating art, she enjoying sharing her joy of art with others. That was her true gift.

I can really relate to this in my music career. I sometimes felt like Salieri in that I lacked the talent to be a really great singer and songwriter, thought it was a “lust in my body” as well. But more like May, I loved making things happen for others whom I thought were really great. I belonged to a very small artist community, fellow Catholics who make music to praise God and share Him with others. The bulk of my time in this community was spent promoting other artists and making connections for them through a magazine I published online called GrapeVine. I did this work for 10 years and enjoyed it immensely, and I hope it helped those I wanted to help. It was a joy in my life.

Caroline Ticknor was right. May’s contribution may not have been the glory she ultimately sought, but without her, we would have been denied some truly great art. That’s a life well lived!

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8 Replies to “May Alcott Nieriker’s True Contribution to Art”

  1. You said this really nicely. Haven’t seen Amadeus but I understand what are you saying. I’m neither musician nor artist, though I like photography (more precisely I enjoy taking pictures:)), but I understand the pride of a teacher when his or her gitfed student has achieved something.

    For a blessed person real joy is in sharing, helping others, passing on their wisdom.

    In Little Women, Amy gave up on art when she discovered that her talent wasn’t genious. Fortunately, real life Amy didn’t. 🙂

    1. Amadeus is another must see. One of my favorite movies of all time. You can, in fact, see the whole thing on YouTube, somebody actually put up the whole movie in 10 minute segments! We lost our copy at home so one night I watched the whole thing on YouTube. Worth it! 🙂

      Photography is art . . .

  2. I’ve just watched all segments of Amadeus on YouTube. There are few parts missing. What happens with Constanze and Salieri after part 6? Has she ever returned “alone that night?”

    1. I can’t believe you did that! 🙂 She doesn’t return “alone that night” and Mozart is never considered for the position.

  3. I’m glad she didn’t, I like Constanze in the movie. 🙂

    You made me think about Salieri and about is there a bit of that “Salieri- feeling” in all of us. Is hard not to want glory or reward, it’s in human nature and that is what we are being taught since childhood – we are taught to want approval.

    And that longing for perfection… I rememberd when I was a very young girl, my cousin and I were not happy with the way we looked, we were looking in the mirror and complaining about “imperfections” of our noses, ears, teeth everything.
    She said she wished to have perfect look – to be a perfect beauty. I thought about it and said that it would be good to have perfect look, and probably all women want that, but if we would all be perfect belles, then – how would we know what the beauty was? We would just take it for granted.

    Admirer needs beauty to admire, but beauty also needs admirer. I mean, if you put things that way then genious means nothing unless it’s recognized, so to recognize greatness is also greatness. If we would think that way, there would be no need for jealousy. 🙂

    1. Brilliant! Which is why May made a significant contribution to the art world even if it remains hidden to most.

      I think it’s really cool to recognize greatness, it’s like discovering a wonderful secret.What a shame May never got to see the Lincoln Memorial, created by her student, Daniel Chester French.

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