By Chris Fahy
Alcott’s essentially comic examination of Amy’s artistic apprenticeship, a mania replete with examples of singed wood, a foot embedded in plaster, and distorted human forms, is consistent with her depiction of fledgling female artists in the short story “Psyche’s Art.” Here the love of art is depicted as a form of communicable disease: its victims “besieged potteries for clay, drove Italian plaster-workers out of their wits with unexecutable orders, got neuralgia and rheumatism sketching perched on fences and trees like artistic hens” (“Psyche” 207). There can be something absurd about a woman desiring to be a genius, who mistakes “enthusiasm for inspiration” (LW 328). Such mockery is not extended to the male Laurie who unrealistically desires to be a composer only to find he has limited talent.
For all her satire, Alcott affirms that Amy does possess talent: her pen and ink drawings show “taste and skill (328); her crayon sketches were “wonderfully fine” (331). Through trial and error she may even come to possess a type of feminine genius. To be sure, Amy renounces her ambition in despair when she views (male) artistic mastery in Rome. But her rendering of her frail daughter at the end of Little Women is her best work, inspired by love not some powerful, impersonal afflatus. Here again she resembles the eponymous heroine of “Psyche’s Art”—in dedicating herself to unselfish household duties Psyche makes possible the affection that will guide her hand to create a perfect likeness of her deceased sister. So, too, this resembles the end of Diana and Persis when Persis renounces the inspired state that led her to create the painting of the lark ascending [listen to Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Lark Ascending” to get a sense for the spirit of this painting] for the more personal, domestic stance that will lead to a rendering of her infant child as Cupid.
Alcott respects Amy’s perseverance. She quotes Michelangelo’s dictum that “genius is eternal patience” (LW 331) to characterize Amy’s stance. As this is also quoted in “Psyche’s Art” it appears that the saying was an important one for Alcott. It may well summarize her feelings toward her own work.
Having said that, the question of genius is a fraught one. The inspiration for Amy, Psyche, and Persis was Alcott’s sister May. But May achieved her greatest recognition as a copyist of Turner. In the character of Hilda in The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts the copyist as a person who renounced her own (limited) genius to become a handmaiden for the Old Masters. She is inspired not by a female muse but by the spirits of the male painters. May Alcott certainly does not go to the extreme of Hilda but it is clear, through the person of Amy, that she ceases to compete with the Old Masters. Instead her inspiration will be the heart rather than a towering imagination.
A powerful imagination is seen in the male sculptors Paul Gage of “Psyche’s Art” and Stafford in Diana and Persis. The eponymous female sculptor Diana also achieves power in her work. It is not the sole domain of men, but it comes with a chill, because its force is achieved at the cost of her personal relationships. The sculpture of Puck, co-created with Stafford as a tribute to his son, is seen as a more appropriate feminine expression of genius.
Alcott, Louisa May. The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson. W.W. Norton, 2016.
—. “Psyche’s Art.” Alternative Alcott, edited by Elaine Showalter. Rutgers UP, 1988, pp. 207-226.
Chris Fahy is a Senior Lecturer at Boston University’s College of General Studies where he teaches a two-semester sequence on literature and art from the ancient Greeks to the present time.
Image by Ashley Yazdani, who, according to blogger Rachel Smith, “is one of the few people who has ever painted Amy with any sensitivity…” Read more at http://rachelsmithillustration.blogspot.com/2013/03/little-women-reviews-beginning.html