A maiden full of lofty dreams
Slender, fair, and tall
As all the goddesses she traced
Upon her chamber wall.
~from "Our Madonna"
Poem by Louisa May Alcott
Abigail May Alcott, the youngest of the Alcott daughters, was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 26, 1840. Like "Amy March" in Little Women, May was a blue-eyed golden girl who possessed from childhood an intense love of beauty and all things artistic and elegant. "She is so graceful and pretty and loves beauty so much, it is hard for her to be poor and wear other people’s ugly things," wrote Louisa to Anna in 1854. "I hope I shall live to see the dear child in silk and lace with plenty of pictures and ‘bottles of cream,’ Europe, and all the things she longs for."
May had also long exhibited a talent for drawing, painting, and artistic experimentation. She then formally studied art in Boston, where her teachers were the highly influential Dr. William Rimmer and William Morris Hunt. She did dream of going to Europe, and it was Louisa’s 1868 success with Little Women that provided the opportunity for her to take three trips abroad to study art in London, Paris, and Rome.
Although unlike each other in many respects, May and Louisa shared an artistic temperament which expressed itself in ambition, willfulness, and a certain competitive spirit. When the 1877 Paris Salon accepted her Fruit and Bottle Still Life for exhibition, May wrote,
Who would have imagined such good fortune and so strong proof that Lu does not monopolize the Alcott talent. Ha! Ha!, sister, this is the first feather plucked from your cap!
That same year, May was chosen to exhibit her evocative Owl Still Life, an homage to sister Louisa, at the London Ladies Exhibition.
In 1878, May married a young Swiss businessman and musician, Ernest Nieriker. The couple settled in the Parisian suburb of Meudon, and led what May called "an ideal life -- painting, music, and love . . ." In November of 1879, May gave birth to a daughter she named Louisa May (nicknamed "Lulu"), in honor of her sister.
Tragically, May died seven weeks after the baby was born, leaving her family utterly distraught. May had earlier stipulated that in the event of her death after childbirth, she desired Lulu to be raised by her sister Louisa in Concord. May keenly felt that Louisa would love the child as if she were her own, and providing her spinster sister with a child was also the greatest gift May could think to give in gratitude for all the love and support Louisa had given her.
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