Alice Neel was one of the great American painters of the twentieth century. She was also a pioneer among women artists. A painter of people, landscape and still life, Neel was never fashionable or in step with avant-garde movements. Sympathetic to the expressionist spirit of northern Europe and Scandinavia and to the darker arts of Spanish painting, she painted in a style and with an approach distinctively her own.
Neel was born near Philadelphia in 1900 and trained at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. She became a painter with a strong social conscience and equally strong left-wing beliefs. In the 1930s she lived in Greenwich Village, New York and enrolled as a member of the Works Progress Administration for which she painted urban scenes. Her portraits of the 1930s embraced left wing writers, artists and trade unionists.
Neel left Greenwich Village for Spanish Harlem in 1938 to get away from the rarefied atmosphere of an art colony. There she painted the Puerto Rican community, casual acquaintances, neighbours and people she encountered on the street. In the 1960s she moved to the Upper West Side and made a determined effort to reintegrate with the art world. This led to a series of dynamic portraits of artists, curators and gallery owners, among them Frank O’Hara, Andy Warhol and the young Robert Smithson. She also maintained her practice of painting political personalities, including black activists and supporters of the women’s movement.