Who was Amy March?
Aug 21, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I definitely go through phases with my movie-watching. Sometimes I’m in a film noir mood, other times it’s classic musicals, but sometimes I just want vintage romance. When it comes to matters of love, a go-to might be Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, but this weekend I re-visited the 1994 adaptation of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I had forgotten how lovely this film is and, after drying my eyes, I researched facts and trivia. Turns out a new version of the classic sisterly tale is hitting the silver screen this holiday season. During my internet sleuthing one particular review grabbed my attention: The New ‘Little Women’ May Finally Do Justice to Its Most Controversial Character. Curiosity piqued, I had to read further about Amy March. It’s no surprise that Little Women was based on Louisa Alcott’s life experiences, but what I find interesting is how the determination of her real-life sister translated into conceit on film. This begs the question… who was Amy March?
Amy, the youngest of the indomitable March clan, is based on Abigail May Alcott Nieriker. Growing up she was known as Abby, but as she left her teenage years behind she embraced a new moniker: May. It takes guts to alter your identity and, in my view, she was a gal who jumped into adult life fearlessly. One such bold move was never giving up on her childhood dreams. Art was May’s refuge, just as writing or acting were for her older sisters. She wanted to be taken seriously, but she didn’t want to give up on what brought her true joy. For most of us, it’s easy to fall into the trap that growing up means giving up certain silly, fun sides of ourselves. When you consider the challenges of life in 1800s America, seriousness had to be a part of your day-to-day. How refreshing that May was able to transition into adulthood on her own terms. Her courage was not lost on her father who is quoted as saying “failure was a word unknown in her vocabulary of effort.”
This resilience would prove vital after the negative reviews of her first true commission. After studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Louisa asked her to illustrate the first edition of Little Women. After a focus on flora and fauna, this was to be May’s most ambitious undertaking to date. The critics were not kind. May could have given up, but she used this challenge as rocket fuel. With some funds from the Little Women book sales, she began her European tour. May often found herself pivoting between the role of student and teacher, allowing each experience to inform her artistic perspective. She attended the prestigious Académie Julian in Paris, a school that accepted female students when many salons refused entry.
May thrived in Europe, establishing a rolodex of connections that would be the envy of any artist at the turn of the century. William Morris Hunt and Daniel Chester French (to name a few). Fun fact: Daniel designed the memorial to Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. and counts May as the teacher who awakened his love of sculpture! During the 1870s her travels expanded beyond Paris, to Rome and London. While she made efforts to study anatomy (remember, this was a time when there were many rules about feminine conduct), her favorite subjects remained flowers and landscapes. In fact, May was known in many collectors’ circles as the most accomplished copyist of William Turner (the child prodigy who grew up to take over the Victorian art scene).
Her 37th birthday year proved to be epic. She was selected as the sole female exhibitor in the 1879 Paris Salon and she won over the most prominent art critic of her time: John Ruskin. In one decade May transformed from a punchline for the Northeastern art crowd to the darling of the international set. Receiving that level of validation must have been extraordinary and is a feat most artists don’t accomplish in their lifetime. What made the success even more sweet was that May was in love. By now we’ve established that May was a lady who did life on her own terms ,so her foray into romance was bound to be special. Her love, Ernest Nieriker, was sixteen years her junior and a merchant with a love of music. Following the honeymoon, May created her masterpiece. Titled La Négresse, it captures an African woman in an authentic way. Rather than stylizing with the exotic undertones, it is an honest portrait of a lady. As she stares into the distance, with a wistful expression, it’s approachable. The piece made a legendary debut at the Paris Salon and May cemented her legacy.
Sadly, this year of triumph was followed by tragedy. Seven weeks after giving birth to her daughter, Lulu (named after her beloved sister Louisa), May passed away from childbirth complications. May insisted that Louisa played an active role in raising her daughter, proof that the bond between sisters ran deep. As I consider May’s life portrait, I’m struck by how passionately she followed her dreams – even in the face of a very public and very early rebuff. The Victorian-era conversations found in the “New Woman” continue in our modern era under different titles (example: being bossy in the workplace). Perhaps earlier film adaptations have boiled-down Amy into a caricature of her true self and trended toward bossy or selfish. From a young age Amy knew what she wanted out of live and was devoted to pursuing that happiness. Granted, there is a fine line between clarity of purpose and arrogance, but I’d like to think that May gracefully walked that line in her own life. Let me know how you plan to honor this trailblazer in the comments…