Alice Neel: The artist in focus

It’s finally the turn of a female artist to be chosen as my “artist in focus”. While reading an article about Alice Neel in ART – Das Kunstmagazin, I got more interested in her work and started doing some research.

Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch and Kathe Kollwitz come to mind as stylistic precursors for Neel’s interest in portraying psychic depth that goes beneath the surface. In a world where painted portraits were still primarily for the upper class, Neel’s insistence on representing a broad cross-section of the American public, from a range of racial, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds was firmly rooted in her political convictions, and recalls the staunch radicalism of Diego Rivera and American artists of the Harlem Renaissance from Aaron Douglas to Archibald Motley.

Neel was virtually unknown and had only a handful of solo shows prior to 1970. In the last two decades of her life, she had sixty. This was not purely due to the strength of her work, but to a seismic shift in the art world, which had begun to acknowledge the achievements of minorities and also women.
At a time when it was deeply unfashionable, Neel persisted in being a figure painter and a portraitist. While fully engrossed in the New York art scene and connected with its major innovators, she remained steadfast in her choice of style and subject matter, unswayed by an art world that favored abstraction. She persisting in making work that pleased her, regardless of what anyone thought.

Types are less interesting to Neel than individuals. Andy Warhol and her neighbor’s children are subjected to the same level of scrutiny, curiosity, and psychic assessment. The artist once said:

“If I hadn’t been an artist, I could have been a psychiatrist.”


Alice Hartley Neel was born into a colorful American family. Young Alice was the fourth of five children, with three brothers and a sister.

After graduating from high school in 1918, Neel took the Civil Service exam and accepted a secretarial job with the Army to help support her family. She worked there for three years while pursuing her passion for art, taking evening classes at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia. Neel’s parents did not understand her professional ambitions. “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world,” her mother once told her, “you’re only a girl!”

With the help of scholarships and her own savings from her work as a secretary, Neel enrolled as a student in 1921 at the Fine Arts program at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. There, she studied landscape painting under Henry Snell, and life drawing and portraiture with Rae Sloan Bredin. Neel earned several awards for her portraits – which would remain her life-long focus. In 1924, she attended a summer program organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the picturesque village of Chester Springs. There, she met and fell in love with a wealthy Cuban in the program, Carlos Enríquez.

Her marriage to Enríquez marked the beginning of a devastating period in Neel’s life. Several months after their marriage, they moved to Havana. The following year she had her first exhibition and gave birth to her first child, Santillana, who died while still an infant from diphtheria. The couple moved back and forth between Cuba and the US, eventually settling on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They had another daughter, Isabetta, in November 1928, and planned to move to Paris in 1930. Instead, Enríquez moved suddenly and unexpectedly to Paris, taking Isabetta with him and leaving the toddler with his family in Europe. Neel suffered a nervous breakdown over the course of the following months, was briefly hospitalized, and later went to find Enríquez. When it was clear that the marriage was unsalvageable, Neel attempted suicide using the oven in her parents’ kitchen, and was hospitalized again. Neel never divorced, but remained estranged from her husband, and would see her daughter only on rare occasions for the rest of her life.

Neel continued to live and work in New York City, and in 1933, received funding from the Public Works of America Project initiatives enacted under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. She participated in only one exhibition, and had difficulty finding a market for her work. In 1944, she even bought back some of her own paintings that were sold to a Long Island junk dealer for four cents a pound.

Neel never remarried, but had a number of romantic relationships beginning in the 1930s. Neel’s partners were unsupportive of her creative endeavors, and one was actively destructive: Kenneth Doolittle destroyed three hundred of her drawings and fifty oil paintings in a jealous rage when their relationship turned sour.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Neel saw the rise of Abstract Expressionism in New York, but remained steadfastly committed to representational work. She was interested in real people – flaws and all – not just bohemians and fellow artists. Her portraits from the 1950s strove to capture the character of her friends and neighbors in New York’s Spanish Harlem in careful, expressionistic detail. This dimension of her work reflects the artist’s commitment to left-leaning causes. The prominent communist writer Mike Gold recognized the value in the diversity of her human subjects – showing a broad slice of life in New York, and helped organize several exhibitions of Neel’s work.

Some thirty years into her career, Neel finally began to receive the recognition she had long deserved. According to the artist, her work “began to be understood in the late 1950s, before that it was too tough for people.” Though she remained resolute about the kind of art she wanted to make, she was always open to new ideas. In the spring of 1960, she painted the poet, art critic, and MoMa curator Frank O’Hara over the course of five sittings, and produced two portraits, one of which was flattering, and the other shockingly critical. The paintings were well received, attracting the attention of ARTnews and the New York Times. This marked the beginning of Neel’s commercial success.

Largely due to feminist intervention in the history of art, by the 1970s, Neel was widely recognized as a major American artist. She was the subject of a major retrospective at the Whitney in 1974. President Carter presented her with an award for her contributions as a woman in art in 1979. She traveled to Moscow in 1981 for a major exhibition of her work, and was honored by New York’s Mayor Ed Koch in 1982. She delivered lectures and participated in panel discussions at a number of prominent museums, art schools, and universities, and actively protested the Vietnam War.

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Images:

  1. Alice Neel, Black Girls in Spanish Harlem, 1959 (David Zwirner Gallery, New York)
  2. Alice Neel, Black Spanish Family, 1950 (David Zwirner Gallery, New York)
  3. Alice Neel, The Black Boys, 1967 (The Tia Collection)
  4. Alice Neel, The Black Man (Date and Collection unknown)
  5. Alice Neel, Stephen Shepard, 1978 (Aurel Scheibler Gallery, Berlin)
  6. Alice Neel, Portrait of two girls (Date and Collection unknown)
  7. Alice Neel, Nancy and Olivia, 1967 (Collection unknown)
  8. Alice Neel, The Gruen Family, 1970 (Tate, London)
  9. Alice Neel, Jackie Curtis and Rita Red, 1970 (Cleveland Museum of Art)
  10. Alice Neel, Andy Warhol, 1970 (The Finch College Gallery, New York)
  11. Alice Neel in her studio.

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