With a career that spanned from the 1920s into the 80s, Alice Neel is widely regarded as one of the greatest figurative painters of the twentieth century. Born on January 28, 1900 in Merion Square, Pennsylvania, the third of four children, she was raised in a straight-laced middle-class family at a time when expectations and opportunities for women were limited. After graduating from high school, Neel took the Civil Service exam and got a well paid clerical position that helped support her parents. After three years of work and art classes at night, she enrolled in the Fine Art program at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1921, graduating in 1925.
Still Life, Rose of Sharon, 1973; Whitney Museum, New York
While in art school, Neel met an upper-class Cuban painter named Carlos Enríquez and married him in 1924. She eventually moved to Havana to live with her husband’s family and was there embraced by the Cuban avant-garde, a group of young writers, artists and musicians. It was in this environment that Neel developed the foundations of her lifelong political consciousness and commitment to equality.
Pat Whalen, 1935; Whitney Museum
A daughter, Santillana, was born in Havana in December of 1926. The couple returned to New York where one month short of her first birthday, Santillana died of diphtheria. In November of 1928, a second daughter, Isabella Lillian (Isabetta) was born in New York City. Barely two years later, Carlos returned to Cuba, taking Isabetta with him. Mourning the loss of her husband and daughter, Neel suffered a massive nervous breakdown, was hospitalized, and after a suicide attempt doctors placed her in the suicide ward of Philadelphia General Hospital.
Self Portrait, 1980; National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC
Released in 1931, Neel moved to New York where for many years she remained poor and unrecognized as an artist. And yet she was a pioneer among American women artists, living a life devoted to her art despite any and all circumstances. For decades she chose her subjects from family, friends, and a wide assortment of local writers, poets, artists, students, textile salesmen, psychologists, cabaret singers, and homeless bohemians, a selection of subjects that was a portrayal of, and dialogue with the city in which she lived. Neel thought of herself as a “collector of souls” and it is clear that she honored those she chose to paint, portraits oftentimes more real than the people themselves, full of restlessness, vulnerability and imperfection. In an interview shortly before her death in 1984 she said, “I could have been a great psychiatrist but it’s more fun being an artist. I see what’s here; I don’t look for anything, I just look…I love to paint people torn to shreds by the rat race of New York.”
Notice the unnaturally lanky arms that stretch out and double back, hands (one open, one curled closed) at rest on either side of the face, fragile but insistent arrows pointing to the cut above one eye, bruises beside the other.
Alice Neel’s obscurity ended when the woman’s movement discovered her in the 1970s and brought a success closely tied to gender equality and feminism. Her portrait of Kate Millet for the August 31, 1970 cover of Time magazine was the result of her new found recognition.
My Mother, 1952; private collection
How does one define the painting of Alice Neel? As realist, expressionist, psychological portraitist, or what? Some might tag her as a social realist but her art is as far removed from social realism as it is from pop. An astute critic may see in the artist’s roots a mixture of the Northern European tradition, New York’s Ashcan School, and American primitive, but there is something about Neel’s art that defies categories. The Art Spirit, a book by the Ashcan School’s Robert Henri was Neel’s bible. Art critic Jeremy Lewison has said that Neel’s realistic approach to the human form at a time of growing abstraction among her contemporaries confirmed her as an outsider. Looking at a collection of Neel’s work the viewer is made to see something fresh, vital, moving, amusing, tender, cruel, mournful, grotesque or sparse. Impressions can be contradictory in the work of Alice Neel, but almost always a visceral experience that plays with the emotions.
Virgil Thompson, 1971
George Arce, a neighborhood boy Neel sketched and painted on several occasions
George Arce, a few years older