In her enduring children's classic, ``Little Women,'' Louisa May Alcott describes Amy, the youngest daughter, as ``a regular snow maiden, with blue eyes and yellow hair curling on her shoulders .... She was never so happy as when copying flowers, designing fairies, or illustrating stories with queer specimens of art.'' Miss Alcott's prototype for Amy was her own sister, Abigail May, a budding artist who produced in her short lifetime numerous sketches and paintings of sensitive beauty and promise.
In real life, Abigail May Alcott, or simply May, as she liked to be called, was unlike the hapless Amy, whose creative attempts often ended in minor disasters. May's delicate drawings still decorate the walls, fireplace mantels, and even the kitchen cutting board of the Alcott family home, Orchard House, in Concord, Mass. On the wall of the narrow front room, the young artist's first studio, hangs a shimmering still life that was exhibited at the 1877 Paris Salon, one of 40 American works accepted from 8,500 entries. Her detailed sketches and patiently crafted watercolors fill two large boxes and several sketchbooks, waiting space for display.
May was born July 26, 1840, ``the one sunny-haired, sunny-hearted girl of the family, who came with the rising of the sun,'' as a family acquaintance remembered. ``A queen, the father called her the morning of her birth, and so they brought her up, the Little Snow Queen.''
The family sheltered its youngest daughter somewhat from the plainness of their poverty-stricken lives, sometimes doing without to buy her colorful ribbons. She repaid them with her bright and cheerful nature.
Amos Bronson Alcott, an impractical philosopher but a devoted father, early taught his four daughters to value themselves, writing them letters of gentle counsel or praise. He encouraged Louisa to record her thoughts and feelings in journals and let May, whom the family nicknamed ``little Raphael,'' draw whatever and wherever she chose.
May's naturally optimistic nature invited opportunities. Family friends or relatives often gave her money for art lessons. With Louisa's help, she studied at the Boston School of Design for three winters and later with two of Boston's best art teachers, William Morris Hunt and Dr. William Rimmer.
``[May] is one of the lucky ones and gets what she wants easily. I have to grind, or go without it,'' Louisa once wrote in her journal. ``Cheer up, Louisa,'' she admonished herself, ``and grind away!''
If May was ``lucky,'' she was far from idle. As a teen-ager, she illustrated a story by Louisa titled ``The Christmas Elves.'' Later she taught art at an innovative school for mentally handicapped children in New York, at the Wayside Family School for Young Ladies in Concord, and, from time to time, in her own small studio. She earned the reputation as Concord's artist-in-residence.
``Her studio at home, a most cobwebby, disorderly, fascinating little den,'' recorded a local newspaper article, ``is frescoed with profiles of her acquaintances. That is the toll cheerfully paid by her visitors - they must be drawn on the wall.''
Another budding Concord artist was young Daniel Chester French, who, for lack of proper materials, whittled on everything from wood and gypsum to turnips. May heard of his efforts and right away offered him some of her own modeling clay and tools. Many years later Mr. French, the sculptor of the famous Minuteman statue and the Lincoln Memorial, credited May Alcott as his first teacher.
May's talent, steadily budding in New England, later blossomed in Europe. In 1869, with the successful publication of ``Little Women,'' Louisa finally lifted her beloved family out of poverty. She sent May to Europe three times to study with noted artists in England and France.
May discovered the advantages of the Old World art schools and lost her artist's heart to the great galleries: the National Gallery and Kensington Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris.
She studied in London and in Montmartre, France, where, just a few blocks away, gathered the artists of the new Impressionist school - Manet, Degas, and Renoir. She became friends with another American woman artist, Mary Cassatt.
May's letters home express a childlike happiness in the smallest details of her busy life: daily art classes from 8 to 5, with frequent visits from recognized artists; trips to the rubbish-filled French antiques shops to look for items suitable for still lifes; a lavish tea at the studio of Miss Cassatt, where she ate ``fluffy cream and chocolate, with French cakes.''
``When I become rich and great, I shall found a school for indigent artists and aspiring young students,'' she wrote enthusiastically.
Unlike her famous sister Louisa, May Alcott would never become ``rich and great.'' In the few remaining years of her life, however, she achieved for herself a healthy respect, tinged with sadness for what she might have become.
In September 1876, May sailed for Europe for the last time. Encouraged by a respected member of the Paris Art Institute, she submitted her untitled ``little still life in a cheap but pretty, unpretentious frame costing ten francs, or $2'' to the 1877 Paris Salon.
Out of 8,500 entries, it was chosen for exhibition and hung at eye level among the 2,000 international and 40 American works honored.
``Mine was thought worthy a place among the best,'' she wrote to her mother. ``Who would have imagined such good fortune, and so strong a proof that Lu [Louisa] does not monopolize all the Alcott talent.''
The same year, May's still life of a stuffed owl, a secondhand store bargain costing 1 francs, was displayed at the prestigious Dudley Exhibition in London. Her paintings were hung in galleries in London and Manchester, England, and in Paris and Lille, France.
In 1879, the Paris Salon chose one of her oil paintings, ``Negresse,'' a striking study of the head and shoulders of a young black woman, for the second time. It was an honor not even accorded her friend Cassatt.
A few months after the showing at the 1879 Paris Salon, the youngest Alcott daughter died at the age of 39. Embracing life as well as art, she had fallen in love with and married a young Swiss businessman and musician, Ernest Nieriker, in the spring of 1878. They had a daughter, Louisa May Nieriker, who was sent to Concord to be raised by her Aunt Louisa.
The day after May's death, Louisa penned ``Our Madonna,'' a poem as full of life and hope as the young artist who inspired it. It begins, A child, her wayward pencil drew On margins of her book Garlands of flowers, dancing elves, Bird, butterfly and brook. Lessons undone, and play forgot, Seeking with hand and heart The teacher whom she learned to love Before she knew 't was Art.