‘I don’t paint like a woman is supposed to paint. Thank God art doesn’t bother about things like that.’
Alice Neel (1900-1984) is widely regarded as one of the foremost American figurative painters of the 20th century. She chose her subjects from her family, friends and a broad variety of New York locals: cabaret singers, homeless, bohemians, poets and artists. Using colour and caricature in a primitive technique, she captured the essence of her subjects with their unapologetic gaze at the viewer.
LINDA NOCHLIN: Art Historian
‘I was active in the women’s movement at the time, and Alice Neel felt a lot of empathy with the movement. She’d always been a kind of rebel, and this was something she also believed in. We talked back and forth about her painting my portrait. I never found her abrasive, but I could see she might be. She was very competitive, a fighter.
My daughter and I went to her place on 107th Street. I think we had six or seven sittings for the portrait. I had to sit there holding my daughter –it is very hard to pose with a child. Alice told stories, and she was terrific with Daisy. We bribed her with food, but I told Alice we couldn’t give her sweets, so she went out and got all kinds of health-food snacks. She was very thoughtful in that way.
Sitting for her was the usual torture of having to sit still. But she was fascinating—in a way sort of incoherent, because she was concentrating. But bits of her life would come out, here and there a little story, an opinion—all mixed together.
She had a very definite style; everyone looks contemporary, and each person looks anxious in their own way. I think she was wonderful on children. She made them tense, intense little kids that modern urban children are, no roly-poly dumplings at all. Fraught. Unsentimental.’
Alice Neel, born in 1900, was raised in a middle-class family on the outskirt of Philadelphia. Even before she arrived in New York in 1927, she had married a Cuban artist and lost a child to diphtheria. Three years later, her husband deserted her, returning to Cuba with their second daughter leaving Neel, in his wake, hospitalized for depression and a suicide attempt.
Over the next few decades, Neel moved from the West Village to a Spanish Harlem tenement; raised two sons by two different fathers—never married again—worked on and off for the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and painted furiously.
Things became so difficult that in order to feed her 2 sons, she was reduced to welfare and shoplifting.
Because portraiture was her primary genre Neel faced steep odds in her quest to have her work exhibited and appreciated. By the early 20th century, advances in photography had rendered painted portraiture practically obsolete. The genre was in such disrepute Neel refused to use the term ‘portraits’ to describe her paintings, identifying them instead as ‘pictures of people.’
Alice Neel’s most interesting sitter was Andy Warhol. Although both artists specialized in portraiture, they approached the genre from completely opposite philosophical stances. Warhol worked from photos often of people he never met, was only interested in the personas that his subjects had constructed; he never tried to penetrate the façade. Neel, however, saw herself as a psychiatrist, recording her subjects’ ever-changing emotions in oil paint. She was a genius at detecting her subjects’ inner lives. She was notorious for exposing and exaggerating her subjects’ flaws.
The resulting portrait of Andy Warhol (1970) is one of Neel’s finest. Instead of appearing in his usual dapper suit, Warhol is naked from the waist up with angry scars across his torso, the result of gunshot wounds he had sustained when a member of The Factory shot him 2 years earlier. The pop artist’s middle-aged male breasts sag and around his middle is a tight girdle, worn to protect his damaged stomach muscles.
In Neel’s pregnant woman (1971), the woman is clearly close to giving birth. She appears to be lying despondently on her side, her belly hugely swollen, her breasts appear sore and her face looks sad and blank. There is nothing joyful here, just an exhausted recognition that late pregnancy is the moment when women loses selfhood to which she may never fully return.
The image is all more unsettling when you learn that the woman in the painting is Neel’s daughter-in-law about to give birth to twin girls.
By the time Alice Neel was in her 80’s she had become a media star. She appeared on The Tonight Show and exchanged saucy repartee with Johnny Carson, New York Mayor Ed Koch hosted a dinner for her at Gracie Mansion and the Whitney Museum held a major retrospective of her work.
Her son Hartley explained, ‘Ultimately what success meant to Alice was the ability to paint without worrying about how to pay for canvas and materials.’
When she passed away, she left a couple of dresses and painting smocks and that was about it.
Today Alice Neel’s paintings hang in major museums all over the world, beside her early Post Modern contemporaries like Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and Chuck Close.
She was as a unique person as the characters she chose to illustrate.