Born at the Hosmer Cottage, Abigail May was the youngest of the four Alcott sisters. Artistically gifted from an early age, she painted decorative figures and faces throughout Orchard House, the family home. May aided the meager family income by selling her art and teaching painting, drawing and modeling clay. She studied teaching at the Bowdoin School, a Boston public school. Taking over for Louisa in 1861, May taught at the first Kindergarten founded by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody for a month before returning to her own work. May later taught an early form of art therapy at an asylum in Syracuse, New York, then returned home in 1862 to begin teaching art at the Concord school run by Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, a friend of Amos Bronson Alcott.
At the school of design in Boston she studied art with William Morris Hunt and William Rimmer, Krug, Vautier and Müller among others. She lent modeling tools to the young Daniel Chester French and encouraged him in his work; French credits May as one of his first art teachers.
May illustrated the first edition of Little Women, to a negative critical reception. Nevertheless, Louisa's financial success in 1868 allowed May to travel throughout Europe with her sister and their traveling companion and friend Alice Bartlett. After the death of Anna Alcott's husband John Pratt in 1871, Louisa returned to Concord while May stayed in Europe to begin serious study. May performed the bulk of her studies in Paris, London and Rome.
In 1877, her still life was the only painting by an American woman to be exhibited in the Paris Salon. Her paintings were exhibited worldwide. John Ruskin praised her copies of Turner, and May's Turner copies were used by art school students. Her strength was as a copyist and as a painter of still life, in oils and watercolors, and she painted many panels featuring flowers on a black background. A panel of goldenrod given to neighbor/mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson still hangs in his study. Several can also be seen at the Orchard House in Concord.
In 1878, 38-year-old May married Ernest Nieriker, a Swiss businessman and violinist some 15 years her junior. The couple lived in Meudon, a Parisian suburb.
She published Concord Sketches with a preface by her sister (Boston, 1869). In her book Studying Art Abroad, and How to do it Cheaply (Boston 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."
In 1879, she died of childbed fever six weeks after her daughter Louisa May "Lulu" was born. By her wish, Louisa May brought up Lulu until her death in 1888 (after which she was raised by her father, in Germany). Louisa's last story was a parable written about Lulu. The story is included in a modern book The Uncollected Works of Louisa May Alcott which is illustrated by May's paintings and drawings.
Though Louisa placed a stone with her initials at the family plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, May is buried in Paris.
Read more about this topic: Abigail May Alcott Nieriker
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