Studying Art Abroad; and How to Do It Cheaply

Author May Alcott Nieriker
Author Name Variants May Alcott Nieriker
Publication Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1879.
Link to Text
Genres Travel Narrative, Advice Literature
Keywords Fine Arts, Travel, Education, Suffrage & Women’s Rights
Contributing State Massachusetts
Research Notes  
Digital Source Notes  

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Lucy Leonard

Tulane University, December 2015

            “To combine beauty with cheapness is always found to be difficult,” wrote May Alcott Nieriker in Studying Art Abroad, and How to Do It Cheaply (35). Published in 1879, Nieriker’s book was intended as a travel and educational guide for female artists touring and studying in London, Paris, and Rome — especially those trying to do so on a budget. Five years later, it was exhibited in the Women’s Department of the 1884 New Orleans World’s Exposition. Addressing the subjects of international education and cosmopolitanism, and promoting women’s participation in global cultures, the book reflects many of the themes of the World’s Fair and strikes a modern tone that still feels relevant today.
            Nieriker was born in Massachusetts in 1840 (Kowalski). She was the younger sister to prolific writer Louisa May Alcott and inspiration for the character Amy March in Louisa’s novel Little Women (Kowalski).  She studied art extensively in Boston, Paris, London and Rome (Swayne 121). In 1878, after already having traveled widely and garnered critical success as an artist, she married Ernest Nieriker, a Swiss man fifteen years her junior (121). Clearly a woman ahead of her time, Nieriker penned Studying Art Abroad, and How to Do It Cheaply to provide other women with the tools they needed to travel and learn art without the supervision of a man.
            The book was published in Boston by the Roberts Brothers in 1879, the same year Nieriker died of an infection weeks after giving birth to her first child (“Nieriker”). In it, Nieriker describes her desired reader as a hard-working but somewhat impoverished woman who wants to make her money last (6). The book is split into five discrete chapters: “En Route,” “London,” “Clothes, Shops, and Addresses,” “Paris” and “Rome.” Each provides insight on how to navigate packing, transportation, and lodging. She offers advice on selecting an art school, sketching, shopping, and, amidst all of this, advises on how to be thrifty. The book combines history with memoir, but it also acts as a travel narrative, an instructional text, a fine arts manual, and a reform tract. The last of these refers to Nieriker’s dedication to women’s rights — especially in terms of art education — which is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the work. She challenges the idea that men and women should be separated in art classes, that women should have to pay more for their art education, and that women would be frowned upon for using live or naked models (Nieriker 48). She argues that women can achieve the same things as men, writing “It only needs, however, the co-operation of a sufficient number of earnest female students to form a club, hire a studio, choose a critic, and engage models, to secure the same advantages, now enjoyed only by men, at the same exceedingly low rates” (49). Studying Art Abroad, and How to do it Cheaply was fairly well received. The Unitarian Review recommended the work as “exceedingly helpful” and “full of helpful hints” and May’s famous sister Louisa wrote in her journal that it was “very useful and well-done” (Louisa Alcott qtd. in Swayne 121).

Works Cited

Kowalski, Kathian M. “The Alcott Artist.” Cobblestone, vol.28, no. 2,2007, p. 23.

“Nieriker, Abigail May Alcott.” The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia, edited by Gregory Eiselein and Anne K. Phillips, 2001, pp. 230-232.

Nieriker, Abigail May Alcott. Studying Art Abroad, and How to Do It Cheaply. Boston: Roberts Brothers,1879.

“Studying Art Abroad and how to do it cheaply.” The Unitarian Review, vol.13, no.1,1880, p.95.

Swayne, Josephine Latham.”Abba May Alcott.”The Story of Concord Told by Concord Writers, E.F. Worcester Press, 1906, pp. 118-125.