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.
In the 1970s, Neel began to paint portraits of her extended family as well as a major series of nudes. Neel’s nudes played with the conventions of eroticism while asserting the female point of view.
Neel exhibited widely in America throughout the 1970s and in 1974 she held a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. She was regularly invited to lecture on her work and became a role model for supporters of the feminist movement. She was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (now the American Academy of Arts and Letters), the highest formal recognition of artistic merit in the USA, and received a number of national awards including the International Women’s Year Award in 1976 and the National Women’s Caucus for Art Award for outstanding achievement in the visual arts in 1979. She died in 1984.
The centenary of her birth was marked by a major travelling exhibition held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art among other places.