Painting was more than a profession, it was an obsession. I had to paint.
Socrates’s aphorism, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, was well tested by Alice Neel, who strove for fulfilment against the social disadvantages imposed on the women of her time. Born in Philadelphia on October 13 1900, she witnessed most of the extraordinary social changes of the 20th Century, and contributed to the on going ferments of artists and writers during this period. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, painted in 1907, had set the painting revolution rolling in Europe but the US had lagged behind, and did not take the lead until mid-century, when the abstract impressionists reigned supreme. Alice did not become an abstract painter or follow popular trends, but stuck with a deep examination of the people in her life through portraiture and figure painting.
Neel was born in Merion Square, Pennsylvania, got a clerical job with the Army Air Corps after leaving school and, in 1921, studied at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. Winning a Senatorial scholarship, she achieved several prizes. She married fellow student Carlos Enriques in 1925 and travelled to Havana with him in the following year, where she had her first solo exhibition. So began the long and difficult career of a young woman determined to devote her life to painting.
The painting of Carlos, with its strong modeling, shows Neel’s vigorous, painterly style and the psychological perception that was to be the mainstay of her later work. This optimism was soon dashed by the birth of her first two children and the early death of her eldest daughter from diphtheria. In 1930 Enriques took their remaining daughter to Cuba and left for Paris, leaving Alice painting in Washington Square, where she had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. After two attempted suicides and a further stay in hospital, her life stabilized enough to participate in the first open-air art show by Greenwich Village artists in Washington Square.
The painting of Ethel Ashton, above, shows her mastery of anatomy and an ability to capture the fleshy presence of the female nude. As in much of her work, there is no attempt to subordinate the truth of what she sees to any aesthetic criteria of beauty. In this regard she could be regarded as a social realist whose message is personal rather than ideological. Comparison with the painting Requiem below shows how much Neel had recovered since the death of her daughter. This strange, surrealistic vision is reminiscent of the work of her contemporary, Frieda Kahlo, who also suffered both physically and mentally for her art.
During the Great Depression, everyone was doing it tough, and Alice, along with many US artists, joined the WPA (Public Works of Art Project). Neel continued with the WPA, on and off, until it was terminated in 1943, remaining on public assistance until the 1950s.
The first I heard of the W.P.A. was when in 1933 I received a letter from the Whitney Museum asking me to come and see them. I was interviewed by a young man who asked me ‘How would you like to paint for $30 a week?’
At this time, Alice was living a Bohemian life with a seaman called Kenneth Doolittle (who slashed or burned hundreds of her works in a fit of rage) and was pursued by a wealthy admirer, John Rothschild. Carlos wrote from Cuba that he wanted them to get back together but she bought a cottage with Rothschild’s help and never saw her husband again. Rothschild left his wife but Alice was uncertain about living with him, and took up with a night club singer, Jose Santiago, instead. In 1939 she bore Jose a son Richard, and in 1941 had a second son Hartley, fathered by communist intellectual Sam Brody. Throughout their lives the boys served as models for their mother, she painted pictures of many other children as well.
Alice Neel was a great admirer of Cezanne, and attributes to him her realization of the importance of the sitter’s psychology. We can see this influence in the gloomy portrait of her mother, below, with its solid modeling and the sombre red and blue tones, reminiscent of Cezanne’s late work and well expessing the suffering of old age.
I have this overweening interest in humanity, even when I’m not working I’m still analysing people.
During the 1950s Neel was living in Spanish Harlem and associated with radical New York figures such as the playwright Robert Frank and beat poet Allen Ginsberg, appearing in a film with Ginsberg called Pull My Daisy, which illustrated the squalor of New York tenement living. The dismal painting, Rag in Window below, sums up the feeling of hopeless living conditions, as does the portrait Two Girls. In the sixties and seventies she participated in the rising women’s movement.
The sixties were a time of hope and renewal, reflected in Neel’s adoption of a brighter palette and the use of unpainted spaces on the canvas. The portrait of Pregnant Julie and Algis was in line with the work of much younger artists, like David Hockney, who were reintroducing representational painting. The post operation portrait of Andy Warhol below affirms that Alice Neel was in touch with the Pop Art movement and its proponents.
Neel liked to paint her sitters nude, both male and female, particularly if the women were pregnant. The portrait of her daughter in law Alice is a typical example, and shows the figure against a lightly sketched background, with a painting of husband Richard behind the chaise. The depiction is stark and captures the social vulnerability and physical discomfort of pregnancy. In contrast, the nude male John Perreault is depicted reclining on silk sheets, relaxed and ready for action; a modern Olympian.
Typical of her more conventional style are the portraits of twins below. Occasionally she painted a still life, often an empty room, and even a vase of flowers.
In 1974 Alice Neel had her first retrospective exhibition, at The Whitney Museum of American Art, which included fifty-eight of her paintings, representing a relatively small portion of her oeuvre but enough to satisfy her need for success. Further recognition came in 1976 when she was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1984 she had a solo exhibition at the Robert Miller Gallery, which included works from the 1930s to the 1980s. The nude self-portrait below captures her spirit of uncompromising honesty, exposed for all the world to see. Alice died of cancer in 1985: her memorial was attended by Mayor Edward Kock and featured a reading by Allen Ginsberg from his latest volume of poems White Shroud.
Alice Neel summed up her philosophy in the following words:
You can do anything you will. If you’re sufficiently tenacious and interested you can accomplish what you want to accomplish in the world.
The short video below gives a glimpse into Alice Neil’s world. Her official website provides a wealth of information about her long and productive career.
Tony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: philosophy, writing fiction, poetry, and blogging.