This special guest review comes to us from Amelia Platt, a fifteen-year-old student from Litcham Comprehensive High School and a participant in the Brilliant Club, a charity that employs PhD students to tutor pupils from low-participation backgrounds. Amelia would like to thank her mentor, Azelina Flint, a doctoral candidate and AHRC CHASE Award Holder at the School of American Studies, University of East Anglia.
I am a British student at Litcham Comprehensive High School who recently took part in a programme called the Brilliant Club. This programme aims to raise pupils’ aspirations from low participation backgrounds with the aim of encouraging more state educated pupils to attend university. Students who take part in the Brilliant Club work in small groups. Each group is assigned a tutor. Over 6 sessions we study a particular topic at a university level. At the end of the course students have to produce a final assignment of 2000 words done in the style of a university dissertation. Our topic focused on recovering the lives and works of a nineteenth century poetesses. In my assignment I looked at Amy Levy, the little-known British poet.
As a result of our assignments, my classmate Poppy Henson and I were invited to Paris by our tutor, Azelina Flint (PhD Candidate, University of East Anglia) to attend a one-day conference she organised at Université Paris Diderot, Recovering May Alcott Nieriker’s Life and Work. Our attendance at the conference was funded by the British Association of Americanists and Litcham School.
May Alcott Nieriker is the little known sister of Louisa May Alcott. She was among the trailblazing women artists of America in the late nineteenth-century. May’s life has often been confused with and overshadowed by that of her literary counterpart, Amy March (the youngest sister in Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Women). May was the basis for the character of Amy. The conference aimed to garner new interest for and look at new perspectives on May’s life and work. The event explored many areas including May’s work as an artist, writer and art critic, the artistic movement in Europe, new archival work regarding May, the question of co-authorship and her relationship with her family (notably Louisa). Poppy and I were both very excited to attend the event because it really expanded on our assignments and work on recovering little known female artists of the nineteenth-century.
The conference has really transformed my understanding of American literature and history. In many ways through studying the Alcotts we can learn wider lessons about America.
A good example of this is May Alcott Nieriker’s time abroad. Nieriker began studying art in America but soon became frustrated with the restrictions placed on female artists, such as not being allowed to paint nudes. Nieriker travelled abroad to Europe. There, although restrictions existed, there were fewer of them.
We see this journey of professionalisation being replicated by other American female artists such as Mary Cassatt and Jane Gardener. May herself talked about how much she loved the freedom of Europe. In her book Studying Art Abroad, and How to do it Cheaply (1879) she advised: “There is no art world like Paris, no painters like the French, and no incentive to good work equal to that found in a Paris atelier.”
I believe this raises interesting questions and contradictions. We have America, a country built on revolution, liberty and freedom, yet deeply restrictive to women living there. It is ironic that female artists like May Alcott and Margaret Fuller journeyed to Europe, the continent that the American republic formulated its tenets of liberty and freedom in opposition to, in order to pursue ideals of equality and democracy, as well as to champion women’s rights. This was explored in a brilliant talk: “Republics Abroad: The Art and Politics of Margaret Fuller and May Alcott in Nineteenth-Century Europe”, by Professor Ariel Clark Silver of Claremont Graduate University.
May Alcott Nieriker’s arguably greatest work, La Negresse, also raises fascinating ideas about American society. The painting in question depicts a young black woman. She is presented realistically in a painting that is devoid of erotic connotations. Completed in 1879 the painting was ground-breaking in respectfully portraying an African-American woman and emphasising her subjectivity. The painting represents the struggle for African-American rights. It confronts head-on America’s uneasy relationship with African-Americans and the abolition of slavery.
May Alcott Nieriker was the only American woman to exhibit her work in the 1877 Paris Salon. An interesting idea running through the conference was the idea of genius. This was explored in-depth in Professor Lauren Hehmeyer of Texarkana College’s paper: “Let The World Know You Are Alive: The Idea of Genius and May Alcott Nieriker.” American artists struggled to assert themselves against the traditions of European art in the nineteenth-century. In the last years of her life, May not only began to form her own identity as an artist, but also began to shape the future of American art through conceiving of herself as a genius. In the late nineteenth-century, “genius” was not something that was commonly embraced by women because it was associated with mental illness. Indeed, Louisa May Alcott did not embrace the term “genius”.
Studying the Alcotts in general can also provide an insight into American culture. The keynote speech, delivered by John Matteson, Distinguished Professor of English Literature at John Jay College, New York, explored the effect of May’s Transcendentalist upbringing on her work. The talk, which was titled “The Pure Hope of Giving…Pleasure’”: May Alcott, John Ruskin and the Moral Aesthetic”, compared May Alcott’s art with British artist J.M.W Turner. May was very much inspired by Turner’s work. Allegedly John Ruskin called her the only person worthy to copy Turner. Matteson argued that the outlook of both artists’ work bore striking affinities with Transcendentalism. In many ways, Transcendentalism can be seen as the first notable American intellectual movement. Through studying its effects on May Alcott’s career as a Turner copyist, we can ascertain its wider influences on the development of women’s art in nineteenth-century America, as well as its transatlantic connotations.
Even May’s death speaks volumes about America. Her exact cause of death is still debated by scholars but the majority believe it was postpartum meningitis. She died 6 weeks after the birth of her daughter Lulu. May died at a time when postnatal mortality accounted for 4 percent of the death rate among American women. May therefore represents, through her death, one of the greatest challenges women faced at the time: the struggle for women to gain care and support.
The conference has been an absolute fantastic experience. I have learned and gained so much as a result. My understanding of America has greatly deepened. The conference portrayed a deeply conflicted nation torn between its values of liberty and its restrictions on society. The conference presented to me the forerunners of modern America, the brave new women who paved the way for a new future. Through looking back we can hope to understand America today.