Neel, Alice (1900–1984)

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Neel, Alice (1900–1984)

American painter who was known for her portraits. Born on January 28, 1900, in Merion Square, Pennsylvania; died on October 13, 1984, in New York City; third of four children (two girls and two boys) of George Neel (a railroad clerk) and Alice Concross (Hartley) Neel; attended public high school in Colwyn, Pennsylvania; graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art), 1925; married Carlos Enríquez (an artist), on June 1, 1925 (separated 1930); lived with Kenneth Doolittle (a sailor), 1931–33; lived with José Santiago (a musician), 1935–39; children: Santillana Enríquez (1926–1927); Isabella Lillian Enríquez (b. 1928); Richard Neel (b. 1939); Hartley Stockton Neel (b. 1941).

The American painter Alice Neel often referred to herself as "a collector of souls," alluding to the expressionist portraits that comprise the bulk of her work, though she also painted landscapes, cityscapes, interiors, and still lifes. Consigning to canvas her family, friends, and lovers, as well as celebrities and derelicts, the artist sought to record the human comedy—much the way Balzac did in literature—revealing through them a unique and poignant insight into 20th-century life. "Alice Neel's highly personal art reveals her private emotions and the realities of her world," writes William D. Paul, Jr. "But more importantly, she shares with us her remarkable ability to penetrate the psyches, minds, and emotions of her subjects. More often than not, the candor of Alice's vision has left her sitters ruthlessly exposed, stripped of veneer, for all the world to see." Neel was personally acquainted with much of the pain and vulnerability she frequently exposed in others. For many years, her life was dominated by her volatile relationships with men, several of whom abused and deserted her, and one who literally destroyed most of her work. She lost one child through death and was forced by economic adversity to send another away, resulting in a nervous breakdown that nearly ended her life. Finally, like so many artists, particularly women, Neel went unrecognized by her peers and the public for years. It was well into the 1960s before she began to capture the attention of the art world and not until 1974, ten years before her death, that a long-overdue retrospective exhibition of her work was held at the Whitney Museum in New York.

The third of four children (two girls and two boys), Alice Neel was born in 1900 in Merion Square, Pennsylvania, but grew up in the little town of Colwyn, where the family moved when she was three months old. "There was no culture there," she later recalled. "I hated that little town. I just despised it. And in the summer I used to sit on the porch and try to keep my blood from circulating." Even as a child, Neel had the feeling that she was destined for something other than an ordinary life. She was alternately terrified and fascinated by the world around her and by the creations of her own imagination. "I was attracted by the morbid and excessive, and everything connected with death had a dark power over me. I was early taken to Sunday School where the tale of Christ on the Cross would send me into violent weeping and I'd have to be taken home." After high school, where she took typing and stenography instead of art, Neel took and passed the civil service exam and got a job with the Army Air Corps in Philadelphia, during which time she also attended the School of Industrial Art at night. She held several civil service jobs before committing herself to a career in art and enrolling at the Philadelphia School of Design (now Moore College), a women's school. At the time, men were an overwhelming factor in her life, and she said she chose a college with only women students so she could concentrate on her work. In the summer of 1924, however, she attended the summer school of the Pennsylvania Academy in Chester Springs and met Carlos Enríquez, a Cuban aristocrat whom she found irresistible. "I was in love with him. He was gorgeous. Not only that, he was an artist. That was one of the best loves I had, really."

Neel married Carlos in 1925 and went with him to Havana where they enjoyed "the life Bohème." They lived with his wealthy family for a time, then moved into an apartment on the waterfront. In Havana, Neel had her first solo exhibition and her first child, Santillana, who died of diphtheria a year later, after the couple had moved back to New York. She expressed her overwhelming grief in the watercolor Requiem (1928) and in a later oil painting, Futility of Effort (1930), which grew out of a newspaper article about the accidental hanging of a child from a crib. She called the black-and-white painting, which depicts a tiny figure dangling helplessly in the framework of a large bed, "a combination of my own tragedy and that event." Cindy Nemser called the work "the catalyst that unleashed Alice Neel's ever-increasing power to document the human reality born out of her own feeling, her own reactions to external events. No matter how Neel's style has varied in line and color over the years, this stark portrayal of feeling, this empathetic involvement with human concerns, remains the essence of her art."

In 1929, Neel gave birth to another daughter, Isabella (called Isabetta), but a year later Carlos left her to go to Paris. Unable to support their daughter, Neel had to send her to Cuba to be raised by her husband's family. She returned to Philadelphia where she recorded her loneliness in dozens of paintings containing stark images in garish hues of green, red, and yellow. The works signaled a nervous breakdown that incapacitated her for a year. She blamed the illness on her inability to grieve for her daughters, and described it as a little death every day. Following her slow recovery, she returned home, then visited a friend in Stockton, New Jersey, where she met Kenneth Doolittle, a sailor with whom she moved to Greenwich Village. In the winter of 1934, in a jealous rage over her developing relationship with Harvard-educated John Rothschild, Doolittle slashed and burned 60 of Neel's painting and 200 drawings and watercolors. She barely escaped the rampage with her life, and soon afterwards took up with a Puerto Rican nightclub singer by the name of José Santiago, with whom she lived for five years. Together, they had a son Richard (b. 1939), after which José ran off with a young saleswoman at Lord and Taylor's. Neel had a second son Hartley (b. 1941) with another paramour, Sam, a "mad" Russian intellectual who also turned out to be jealous and possessive. She left him when he began to abuse her son Richard.

During the Depression years, Neel participated in the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), and the easel project of the subsequent Work Projects Administration (WPA), programs that kept her off the dole. For the latter, she produced a picture every six weeks, often working at night while her children slept. Her social realist paintings of this period are somber in color, complementing the anguish of their subjects. One work, Synthesis of New York (1933), shows people huddled in coats with skeletal faces trudging to the subway, while another, The 9th Avenue El (1935), depicts two wretched souls standing on the street corner. Other works capture the faces of Spanish Harlem, where she resided with José. One particularly moving painting, T.B. Harlem (1940), is of a young Puerto Rican man following surgery for tuberculosis, his ribs bandaged and his head thrown back on the pillow much like Christ's head resting on the Cross. The painting was not exhibited until 1971, when her alma mater Moore College held an exhibit of her work. "The galleries didn't like anyone else but Jesus Christ to be on the Cross," Neel commented. Another of her more controversial paintings—a nude portrait of her friend Joe Gould (1933), revealing a triple set of genitalia seen from different angles—was also hidden away until the Moore College exhibit.

Neel continued to live in Harlem throughout the 1940s and the 1950s. This was a particularly difficult period for the painter, who was passed over by dealers, critics, and patrons in favor of the new abstract, nonfigurative artists. "When I go to a show today of modern work I feel that my world has been swept away," she said in her honorary doctorate address at Moore College of Art in 1971, "and yet I do not think it can be so that the human creature will be forever verboten." Neel continued to produce portraits, receiving some recognition in 1960, when her painting of Frank O'Hara (1960), the poet and curator of the Museum of Modern Art, appeared in Art News. Throughout the '60s, she continued to capture attention, as part of a group show at the Kornblee Gallery in New York and as the recipient of the Longview Foundation Prize awarded by Dillard College, which also purchased her portrait of political activist Stewart Mott (1961). She created portraits of numerous other celebrities, including feminist leader Kate Millett (for the August 31, 1970, cover of Time magazine), composer Virgil Thomson (1971), and artists Andy Warhol (1970), Isabel Bishop (1974), and Marisol (1981), among others.

The actual process of producing a portrait began for Neel with the choice of size and type of canvas. Subjects arrived at her studio wearing whatever they wished, although she sometimes requested an outfit she had seen them in previously and liked. During the settling-in period, Neel talked with her subjects (or her "victims" as she sometimes called them), while she observed their faces and body language. "Before painting when I talk to the person, they unconsciously assume their most characteristic pose, which in a way involves all their character and social standing—what the world has done to them and their retaliation." She then divided the canvas and in thinned ultramarine paint drew the outlines and features of the subject (and of the furniture if applicable). She finished the work by filling in the outline with color, which took anywhere from three days to a week. Critic Robert Taylor suggests that Neel's portraits represent a confrontation wherein Neel probed for psychological truth beyond what the subject wanted her to see. "She does this through deliberate anatomical distortion, posture, or even by using clothing as an aspect of characterization—as in 'David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock,' the latter [a critic of underground film and experimental art] in his underwear, the former [a Life magazine art editor] in corporate uniform of a business suit, striped tie and collar clip." Neel likened her portrait painting to an LSD trip in which she became the person she was portraying. "Sometimes," she said, "I feel awful after I paint. Do you know why? Because I go back to an untenanted house. I leave myself and go out to that person and then when I come back there is a desert."

Quite apart from Neel's "gallery" portraits were those of the people closest to her, the men she had loved, her sons Richard (a lawyer) and Hartley (a doctor), and her grandchildren. Neel had hoped that her children would also pursue careers in the arts, but since they did not, she consoled herself with Richard's wife Nancy, a New Englander who possessed a true understanding and appreciation of art. Nancy, who came to serve as Neel's private secretary and assistant, also modeled regularly for her mother-in-law, once when she was pregnant, reclining on her side, with "the guilty party" as Neel referred to Richard, in the background. Pregnancy, as one of women's natural cycles, fascinated Neel, and it became a major theme in her work. "It's a very important part of life and it was neglected," she said. "I feel as a subject it's perfectly legitimate, and people out of false modesty, or being sissies, never showed it. … Also, plastical ly, it is very exciting. Look at the painting of Nancy pregnant: it's almost tragic the way the top part of her body is pulling the ribs."

Although known for her "human creatures," Neel also painted first-rate landscapes, cityscapes, and still lifes, a collection of which was exhibited at the Tisch Gallery at Tufts University in 1991. Christine Temin , who called the exhibition a "revelation," reviewed the show for the Boston Globe. "Seen from across the large gallery," she wrote, "Neel's paintings are forceful; close up, they fascinate. Clear color, flattened forms, quavering outlines, often in blue—the stylistic signatures of Neel's portraits are here, too." Many of Neel's cityscapes were painted from her own apartment in Manhattan, where she lived from 1927 until her death in 1984. Temin found them "Hopperesque," stark and quiet, with little action. She singled out the urban painting Night (1959), which is completely devoid of detail. "An accumulation of sorrowful black verticals, reminiscent of rain or tears, is broken only by a blaze of artificial yellow light in a window that remains an enigma." Pamela Allara , the art historian and former Tufts faculty member who organized the show, writes of Neel "knitting together her environment with her feelings," particularly in Sunset, Riverside Drive (1957), which she likens in emotional clout to Edvard Munch. "A yellow orb is reflected by a shimmering swath in the water" she writes. "The greenery at the river's edge is engaged in a manic dance." Even when painting flowers, which she loved, Neel avoided the sentimentality of detail, although her works on nature are free of angst. In Still Life, Rose of Sharon (1973), the viewer senses Neel's simple joy in capturing nature's beauty.

Alice Neel continued to paint into old age, the gray hair and plump grandmotherly appearance of her later years making her outrageous comments and well-defined ego sometimes difficult to reconcile. While her art and her family continued to occupy much of her time, she retained an active interest in the world at large and was always eager to share her hard-earned knowledge with younger artists. ("I would tell these classes of art students, the more experience you get, the better, if it doesn't kill you. But if it kills you, you've gone too far.") The Whitney retrospective in 1974, which included only the artist's portraits, led to a more extensive survey organized by the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens in 1975. This was followed by a series of smaller exhibitions across the United States, as well as one at the Artists' Union in Moscow in 1981. Though beset by cataracts and ill health, Neel continued to paint up until a month before her death at age 83 on October 13, 1984.


Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Hills, Patricia. Alice Neel. Foreword by William D. Paul, Jr. NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1983.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1976. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1976.

Nemser, Cindy. "Alice Neel: Portraits of Four Decades," in Ms. October 1973, pp. 48–53.

Taylor, Robert. "Neel portraits evoke energy of personality," in Boston Globe. October 19, 1980.

Temin, Christine. "Revelations Abound at Alice Neel Show," in Boston Globe. October 18, 1991.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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