Alice Neel



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.

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.


Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
Alice Neel
Painter of Modern Life
Emotional Values
Alice Neel and the American
Reception of German Art
by Petra Gördüren
Expressive Realism in Alice Neel’s Early Work
It was during her education in Philadelphia that Neel came in contact with American Realism. She
extended its tradition and surely also redefined it for twentieth-century art. Neel enrolled at the
Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art & Design) in 1921.
While it was considered a conventional school for upper-class daughters at that time, it looked
back with pride on the years in which Robert Henri – the founder of New York’s Ashcan School
and the leading protagonist of American Realism since the 1910s – served as a teacher there. In
retrospect, Neel resolutely declared that she preferred her studies at the School of Design to the
well-established Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, the oldest art academy
in the US. While the latter had opened itself to modern developments in art around 1920, it also
cherished the memory of two internationally successful artists from Philadelphia, the
Impressionist Mary Cassatt and the fashionable portrait painter Cecilia Beaux – both of them
served as negative “role models”, so to speak, from whom Neel programmatically distanced
herself with her less accommodating works: “I didn’t want to be taught Impressionism […]”, was
the reason the artist gave for the choice of her place of education; “I didn’t see life as a Picnic on
the Grass. I wasn’t happy like Renoir.” And she added in further explanation: “I didn’t want to be
taught a formal form.” Neel thus criticised Impressionism as a formalist art, as a highly
aestheticised art form that did not deal with the darker aspects of human life. Depicting these
was, however, the declared intention of the artist, who saw painting primarily as a medium of
expressing one’s opinion and accordingly even as a “philosophy about life”.
The European avant-gardes, including Expressionism and the Neue Sachlichkeit, had pursued
similar goals in the first decades of the twentieth century: Expressionism, with its turning to an
artistic statement defined by inner worlds, and the Neue Sachlichkeit, with its critique of the social
and political reality of the interwar period. While Neel’s links to the tradition of American Realism
cannot be denied, her work nonetheless – in a manner that is entirely characteristic of the social
realism of American painting in the twenties and thirties – certainly raises the question of a
possible reception of European developments in art. German and Scandinavian positions, in
particular, must have aroused her attention, for they were seen as less formalistic and, above all,
as the expression of subjective feelings in comparison to the dominant French art.
Still, the existing sources make it largely impossible to determine when Neel first came in contact
with German avant-garde art. She had, however, already had some contact with German culture
Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
early on in her life. The artist grew up near Philadelphia, a city strongly influenced by German
immigrants and their descendants. Two of her professors were also born in Germany. Without
mentioning his name, she describes one of them as “very dogmatic”, but she was very
enthusiastic about the other, her drawing teacher – the portrait painter and glass artist Paula
Himmelsbach Balano, who had come from Leipzig to the US with her family in 1879, while still a
child.
Neel’s first known works are dated 1926, when she was living in Havana, recently married to the
Cuban painter Carlos Enríquez. Although they are executed with a coarser brushstroke and a
gesture that is clearly more expressive, paintings like Beggars, Havana, Cuba (Estate of Alice
Neel, fig. 1), the portrait Carlos Enríquez (cat. 1) and Mother and Child, Havana (cat. 2) display a
clear afinity with the art of Robert Henri – both in their dark palette and the choice to depict
underprivileged social classes. His book The Art Spirit was indubitably also of great significance
for Neel, as it was for other artists of her generation. Henri propagated a painting that was to lead
out of the academies and to turn to everyday life with a subjective, but open-minded gaze: “What
we need is more sense of the wonder of life and less of this business of making a picture.” And
he demanded that artists develop “a fresh new concern for everyday objects and an awareness of
new trends in painting”.
As a student Neel was well-read and, in Havana, she moved within the circles of Cuba’s artistic
avant-garde. Their organ was the journal revista de avance. The first issue appeared in March
1927 and Enríquez was a regular contributor. It certainly paid attention to developments in
Europe, but in this regard its interest was primarily in Cubism, Futurism, and Surrealism.
Nonetheless, there was a debate specifically of German literature and philosophy: Leibniz and
Hegel were discussed, as were Nietzsche and Husserl. The few traces of German and Austrian
avant-garde art that can be tracked down in the journal naturally include scattered illustrations by
Max Ernst, George Grosz, and Egon Schiele, whose familiarity can thus be assumed.
The American Perspective on a “Serious” Art
After just over a year in Cuba, Neel returned to America with her daughter in May 1927, her
husband following them in the autumn. She settled in New York, where she encountered an art
scene in which German and Northern European art was increasingly acquiring traction. Until the
beginning of the century, the artistic exchange with Germany had taken place through
immigration, journeys abroad for study and also developing institutionalised support; after being
broken off during the First World War, critics, gallery owners and museum professionals
systematically promoted contact with the young German avant-garde. A few of the exhibitions
that were important for the reception of German art took place early on. The Société Anonyme,
which was founded by the German- American artist and collector Katherine Sophie Dreier in
1920, and in which Marcel Duchamp was also active, presented Kurt Schwitters to the American
public in 1920, Wassily Kandinsky in 1923 and Paul Klee in 1924. In 1926/1927, it organised the
highly successful International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Brooklyn Museum, which had
52,000 visitors. With artists like Kurt Schwitters and Wassily Kandinsky, Max Ernst, Paul Klee,
Franz Marc, Gabriele Münter, Heinrich Hoerle and Carl Buchheister, the focus in German art was
Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
on Expressionist, Dadaist and Constructivist tendencies. This catalogue was to become a
reference point as a canon for modern art was established in the succeeding years.
Expressionist art, on the other hand, was promoted with dedication by the German art historian
William R. Valentiner, who came to the US in 1921. He was initially employed as a curator and
then, from 1924 onward, as director at the Detroit Institute of Arts. In collaboration with the Berlin
gallery owner Ferdinand Möller, who was looking for new overseas markets for the modern
German art represented by his gallery, Valentiner organised the 1923 exhibition Modern German
Art at New York’s Anderson Galleries. Among others, it was artists of the Brücke and the
Bauhaus whose works were exhibited – but also that of Emil Nolde, Christian Rohlfs and Franz
Radziwill as well as Lyonel Feininger, who was born in New York, but hardly known in the US at
that time. More recent art was represented by two of George Grosz’s drawings, “an unpleasant
surprise” in the judgment of the New York Times. While the discussion of the exhibition was not
necessarily favourable, it certainly drew attention and was thus considered a success by
Valentiner.
One of Valentiner’s fundamental aims was to establish a distinction between German art, as an
art of inner expression, and French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: “But there is also an
art that is life itself”, he wrote in the introduction of the catalogue, “that rises out of the depth like a
cry, and it carries the deepest expression of humanity”. Valentiner presented Expressionist art as
the expression of a tormented soul and characterised it as a German phenomenon – ignoring the
fact that the term “Expressionism” had been coined at the beginning of the century with reference
to international (including French) avant-garde tendencies. The interest in Expressionism in the
US had already begun in the early 1920s, and before the ne art of this movement entered the
scene, Expressionist film, literature, and music had already made an impression on the American
public.
Another protagonist who successfully dedicated himself to the presentation of German art in the
US was the art dealer J. B. Neumann, who opened his New York gallery in 1924 and began to
show German artists in 1927. In April 1927, shortly before Neel’s arrival in the metropolis, Max
Beckmann’s first solo exhibition in America could be seen there. The show was not a financial
success, but the 15 exhibited paintings aroused substantial attention in the press. With a single
stroke, Beckmann became known as an “unquestionably strong painter”, his work understood as
a “selective mirror of life in post-war Central Europe”. That same year, the largely conservative
Homer Saint-Gaudens, director of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, announced after returning
from a trip to Europe: “The greatest change in the art situation in Europe today has taken place in
Germany. […] In Germany art has become completely modernist.”
The interest in artistic developments in Germany was reflected in the daily press from the mid-
1920s onward, but also in articles on German art in scholarly journals. Oskar Kokoschka and Max
Pechstein, Max Ernst and Paul Klee were well-known names; Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Emil Nolde,
and Käthe Kollwitz were highly esteemed. George Grosz was known both for his caricature-like,
cynical works on paper and for the blasphemy trial of 1928. Otto Dix was another German artist
who began to draw increasing attention from 1927 onward. Dix’s first solo exhibition was held in
Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
1923 at the gallery of Neumann’s partner in Berlin, Karl Nierendorf; Dix was included in
Neumann’s program and, along with Kokoschka, Pechstein, Willy Jaeckel and Anton Faistauer,
he had been represented since the fall of 1927 by several works at the Carnegie International,
which began in Pittsburgh and toured to Brooklyn and San Francisco.
As was the case every year, the Carnegie International – which was presumably the largest
regularly-occurring exhibition of international contemporary art at that time – enjoyed a substantial
resonance in the press. Among the artists from German-speaking countries, it was
particularly Dix and Kokoschka who were discussed. The New York Times reproduced
Kokoschka’s Portrait of Albert Ehrenstein (1914, National Gallery, Prague, fig. 26) and praised
the psychological insight of its depiction, and the paper also occupied itself extensively with the
portrait Hugo Erfurth with Dog (1926, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, fig. 28), which is one
of Dix’s most important likenesses and could be seen there for the rst time in the US. It is
possible that Neel, who lived in New York at that time, was among the visitors to the exhibition in
Brooklyn. Constantly in rebellion against established artistic positions, she must have had a vital
interest in an art that the critic Helen Appleton Read assessed in her review of 15 January, 1928,
printed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “The German section is in interesting contrast to the French
and British. German painters care little for charm, but there is an earnestness […] and always the
psychological twist which gives their art a distinctive personality and interest. […] Painting does
not mean decoration or merely aesthetic satisfaction to the German. It is and always has been a
Weltanschauung (attitude toward life).” Read, who had also studied with Robert Henri and
supported American Realism, emphasised the uncompromising interiority and the forceful
psychological expression of German art – aspects which were repeatedly used to characterise it
in American art criticism of the 1920s – and thus legitimised its apparent ugliness.
Encounters with Modern German Art
Art as an expression of “life itself” (Valentiner) or as a “Weltanschauung” (Read): Such
characterisations of the German art of the 1920s display a remarkable afinity with Neel’s
understanding of art as a “philosophy of life”, so that the existence of a comparable mental
attitude may be assumed, regardless of the contentious question about a direct reception of
German tendencies in art in her work. In addition – to the extent that this can be documented on
the basis of the few preserved early paintings and watercolours – there is a clear shift in Neel’s
work after 1927. While the underprivileged social classes stood in the focal point of her early work
as an artist, in works like The Family (fig. 30), she redirects her attention to her own life with a
clear-sighted and startlingly open analysis of the situation in her parents’ home. She unflinchingly
deals with her personal suffering, for example, the death of her first daughter Santillana in late
1927, her traumatic separation from Enríquez in May 1930, her financial worries, and the lack of
family support: a personal suffering expressed in deeply disturbing, painted compositions and that
finally led to the artist’s nervous breakdown.
At the same time, German art was achieving increasing acceptance and prominence in the US.
Even before its conclusive breakthrough with Alfred H. Barr’s German Painting and Sculpture in
1931 at the still-new Museum of Modern Art, there were constant reports on exhibition events
Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
dealing with German art. The New York Times alone provided extensive coverage of individual
artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit: on the occasion of the June 1928 exhibition Deutsche Kunst
(German art) in Düsseldorf; in the autumn, Grosz’s trial for blasphemy was one of its daily topics.
In early 1929, the paper commented upon Alfred Kuhn’s contribution in the special issue of the
journal Survey Graphic dedicated to Germany: this text provided an extensive overview of
contemporary German art and presented Dix, Georg Scholz, George Grosz, and Rudolf
Schlichter, among others. In the spring of 1929, Max Beckmann and Karl Hofer were declared to
have established themselves on the international market, and it was simultaneously noted that
Grosz wanted to secure his presence in the US. Only a few months later, the New York Times
announced the first purchases of German art for the Art Institute of Detroit and the Art Institute of
Chicago. In May of 1930, the newspaper finally pointed out that some considered Nolde the
“greatest living German painter”, and in August of that year, it praised and prominently
reproduced Dix’s 1927 painting Liegende auf Leopardenfell (Woman Reclining on a Leopard
Skin; Ithaca, Cornell University, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art) on the occasion of the
Venice Biennale.
The reception of German art in the US in 1931 was defined above all by the exhibition German
Painting and Sculpture. Neel certainly did not see the show: at that time, she had been
hospitalised for treatment following her attempted suicide. However, on the basis of her
professional interest, we can nonetheless assume that she knew about the exhibition and its
accompanying catalogue; indeed, several portraits of the 1930s, for example, Max White (1935,
cat. 11) and Elenka (1936, cat. 18), clearly recall the Neue Sachlichkeit. Finally, in 1933, she also
exhibited together with three of the artists presented in German Painting and Sculpture:
Pechstein, Beckmann, and Klee. It was the second group show in the US for Neel, who had
moved to New York’s Greenwich Village – which was popular among intellectuals – in early 1932,
following her recovery.
The Living Art Exhibition, which J. B. Neumann organised at the Mellon Galleries in Philadelphia
after his own gallery went bankrupt, seems to be the only documented direct contact between
Neel and the German avant-garde. However, the effects of this encounter were – judging by the
sparse source material – of moderate intensity. In this group exhibition, Neumann gathered
American, Mexican, and European artists. With five works, Beckmann was the most extensively
represented artist. According to the exhibition flyer, Neel presented two works, Red Houses and
Snow; however, it has not yet been possible to identify these with complete certainty, and they
may also have fallen victim to the destructive rage of a jealous lover in 1934. Following the
exhibition, there was one further meeting with Neumann, who visited the artist in her studio.
However, the paintings that Neel showed to the dealer on this occasion, among them the portrait
of Joe Gould (1933, cat. 8) – practically a precursor to Martin Kippenberger’s “bad painting” –
surely represented the most radical position but did not lead to a further business relationship.
The notion that an increasing awareness of German art also contributed to the artistic break in
Neel’s work after 1927 can perhaps be best illustrated through a direct comparison of two works.
We do not know whether the artist saw Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s 1911 painting Weiblicher Halbakt
Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
mit Hut (Female Half-Length Nude with a Hat, Museum Ludwig, Köln, fig. 29), for example, in
person or as a reproduction, but the thematic and stylistic similarities with the 1930 portrait Rhoda
Myers with Blue Hat (cat. 4), as well as with the nude portrait Ethel Ashton (1930, cat. 5) from the
same year are distinctive. In the formative years of her career, Neel absorbed many influences
from various artists and then developed these into an independent position. The expressive
force of German Expressionism, but also the relentlessness of the Neue Sachlichkeit, must have
represented a link to American Realist positions in her eyes, and they were surely among the
inspiring pictorial worlds within the visual cosmos of an artist who, like every self-assured artist,
rigorously rejected imitative quotations of the works that served her as models.

Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels


Text © Jeremy Lewison
Alice Neel
Painter of Modern Life
Painting Crisis
by Jeremy Lewison
During the mid-thirties Neel painted friends, Communist political activists and the bohemian
characters of Greenwich Village. If her style varied between the expressive (Elenka) and the soto-speak
photographic (Max White) it was because Neel was perhaps torn between her Robert
Henri inspired training in Philadelphia, and her own discovery of photography, European and
American, that must have occurred around this time. Henri’s The Art Spirit (first published in
1923) was something of a bible to Neel, whose paintings would continue, perhaps increasingly, to
reflect the absorption of his teachings. Henri’s belief in spontaneity, in the primacy of the brush
stroke and its ability to transmit the state of the artist, in the need for speedy execution and
painting from memory, in the depiction of the background as just air, in the power of the look of
the unfinished over the finished, were all to play a key role in Neel’s work, although she was also
to observe these characteristics in the paintings of some of the artists she most valued, Cézanne,
Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh. But on the other hand there was the increasing visibility of
photography and her greater exposure to it once she met the photographer and filmmaker, Sam
Brody, who was to become her partner for just over 18 years from 1939.
It was the year before this meeting, while still living with José Santiago Negrón and pregnant with
his child, that Neel moved from the bohemian quarter of Greenwich Village, to the gritty,
immigrant neighbourhood of Spanish Harlem. Although an overwhelmingly African-American
district of Manhattan, Harlem had pockets where different nationalities would congregate, forming
ghetto-like conurbations. Spanish Harlem, later to be called El Barrio, was the Eastern enclave
populated predominantly by Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans. While Neel moved there to be
closer to Negrón’s family, cutting herself off from Bohemia, it was not as much a removal from the
cultural world as some writers have suggested, for Harlem underwent a “renaissance” of AfricanAmerican
culture in the twenties and thirties. Neel undoubtedly had contact with some of its
protagonists. Nevertheless, the principal motive for her departure from the Village, she
announced retrospectively, was to seek out the “truth”, and in that sentiment she echoed the
words of the pioneer American photographers.
In his article “The Reappearance of Photography”, published in 1931, Walker Evans described a
reawakened interest in “simple” and “honest” photography and an abandonment of the romantic
aestheticism of Alfred Stieglitz. Evans and his contemporaries introduced a new aesthetic that
foregrounded decay, hardship, obduracy and pathos and that, in the context of the Great
Depression, became an index of truth. Their portraits of tenant farmers, the unemployed, the
starving and the desperate did much to refocus the minds of city dwellers, and demonstrated
more than anything else that America had no single identity but was a nation of many parts (fig.
Text © Jeremy Lewison
4). This interest in documenting America and focusing on ordinary people and their harsh lives
was consistent with the views of Neel’s Communist friend, Mike Gold, who advocated a
proletarian realism, a functional art concerned with facts. His rejection of bohemianism, as
Andrew Hemingway has explained, was commonplace among Communist Party members. For
another Communist like Brody, films and photography were weapons in the class struggle.
Photography was considered at the time to be a measure of authenticity. Ostensibly objective,
often published anonymously, it became a tool of social reformers and a means to communicate
honest truths. The public gave little thought to the means by which photographers could actually
shape their intentions by editing, lighting and cropping. Neel was, therefore, among a number of
artists and photographers who came to realise, as an anonymous writer opined in the programme
notes for the Film and Photo League (a slightly later incarnation of the Workers’ Film and Photo
League of which Brody was a founder member in 1930), that “the only honest approach to art is
TRUTH”.
Three paintings of the middle of the decade, Max White, Elenka and Kenneth Fearing (1935, cat.
12) suggest that Neel was at a crossroads. If Max White had a high focus, almost photographic
quality, and Elenka was to a certain degree expressionistic, the portrait of Fearing was to a large
extent allegorical, consistent with such works as Futility of Effort (1930, private collection, fig. 31),
Degenerate Madonna (1930, cat. 3) and Symbols (Doll and Apple) (c. 1933, cat. 7). The fact that
she chose to pursue the line set by Elenka suggests that for Neel “truth” was more than
naturalism, more than being faithful to appearance and required greater restraint than the fantasy
required to create allegory. Although she was a great admirer of the allegorical, didactic and
propagandistic murals of Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco (she
regarded Orozco as the greatest of the three), and seemed to nod in the direction of Rivera in her
depiction of Pat Whalen (1935, Whitney Museum of American Art, fig. 6), she must have felt that
the complexity of their works, replicated to some extent in Kenneth Fearing, was too illustrational,
too much in the service of narrative and maybe too impure in painting terms, for rarely in their
mural work was paint allowed to remain paint. Theirs was essentially a graphic, almost comic
strip art, that deferred to the models set by trecento and quattrocento Italian religious painters for
recounting holy narratives.
Neel’s move to Spanish Harlem precipitated not so much a change of subjects as additions to the
range. She continued to paint left wing activists, but they included members of the AfricanAmerican
and Hispanic population that she would not have encountered in Greenwich Village,
and she expanded her repertoire to embrace immigrant neighbours. Very few of her sitters, if any,
would have been widely known.
The way in which Neel addressed her new subjects, the young Georgie Arce, for example, or the
anonymous Hispanic and black children, echoed the approach of Lewis Hine (fig. 5). Hine
photographed immigrants at Ellis Island and street children in the style of social documentary that
was later taken up by Jerome Liebling, a member of the Film and Photo League, who began his
career in the late 1940s. Hine’s photographs were shown in a retrospective at the Riverside
Museum, New York in 1939, the year after Neel moved to Spanish Harlem. The authenticity of
Text © Jeremy Lewison
Hine’s photographs and the innocence of children in the harsh urban environment pervade Neel’s
depictions of her downtrodden neighbours. Like that other Harlem street photographer, Helen
Levitt, who had a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1943, her subjects
were not citizens of the new streamlined, mechanised city but of the poor districts that
modernisation passed by. This was closely observed New York, not the idealised vision
presented in architectural models at the New York World Fair in 1939, where people were shown
as encumbrances in an impersonal, Corbusian environment dominated by highways, skyscrapers
and cars.
It is not clear how much Neel looked at photography before meeting Brody, but she was an
admirer of the great French nineteenth century pioneer, Félix Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon),
whose work was bought and shown as early as 1931 by Julien Levy. “Nadar took photographs
that were better than paintings”, she told Jonathan Brand. “His picture of Balzac (fig. 7) couldn’t
have been outdone. And Nadar made a photograph of [Joseph] Conrad that is just one of the
greatest things I have ever seen. He looks like a lion.” What Neel must have admired in Nadar’s
work was the characterisation of the sitter, the power of the pose and the sense of intimacy that
differentiated his work from routine photography (fig. 8). Nadar’s methods of obtaining the pose
were pretty much Neel’s. Describing one of his late photographs of Adolphe Crémieux he wrote:
“One sits down, one chats, one laughs, all the while readying the lens; and when [he] is in place,
well positioned and drawn out for the decisive moment, radiating all his natural benevolence,
warmed by the affection with which he feels himself surrounded” the shutter is released. Nadar,
like Neel, was after an intimate moment when the sitter revealed his innermost character. She
would talk constantly to sitters while painting, lulling them into finding a pose that would reveal
what she regarded as their inner self.
Unlike the ornate interiors that formed the backdrop of the photographic work of many of his
contemporaries, Nadar’s photographs were austere, rarely full length, and with plain
backgrounds. He seldom encouraged his sitters to express emotion, and a large number of his
works portrayed people facing straight to camera or in three quarters pose. Neel adopted similar
strategies in her portraits of the 1930s. Max White, for example, sits impassively staring straight
at the artist (cat. 11). His clothes are plain and loose, muffling his body so as not to draw attention
from his head, a strategy also employed by Nadar whose male sitters tended to wear black out
fits so that their faces appeared as highlights. Like a Nadar photograph, Neel’s painting is severe
and intense with all concentration directed towards White’s head. But the close- cropped hair, the
chiselled features, the plain worker’s suit and neutral background also bring to mind Alexander
Rodchenko’s portraits of Vladimir Mayakovsky of 1924 (fig. 9). Whether Neel knew these Soviet
photographs or not, what she creates is a look associated with the proletarian thinker and writer.
Elenka also mimics Nadar’s compositions; again an impassive look, a compressed space, but
also the use of the arm of a chair to maintain a pose (cat. 18). There appears to be no
conversation taking place, the sitter concentrating on keeping still, unlike in Neel’s late portraits
which could be restless. In Nadar’s day taking a photograph needed such a long exposure that
the sitter required props to maintain poses. Similarly the strong contrast between the light and
Text © Jeremy Lewison
dark sides of Elenka’s face are a feature of Nadar’s photographs, for early on in his career Nadar
photographed his sitters outside in full sunlight with the sitter placed so that one side of the
face was more brightly lit than the other. Neel regularly adopted this strategy, nowhere more
memorably than in the second portrait of Max White (1961, cat. 37) where the dark side of the
face suggests infirmity attendant upon old age and reeks of mortality. The chiaroscuro portrait
also became a familiar theme in the work of the photographic portraitist Irving Penn, but he used
it for dramatic effect rather than to suggest any metaphoric reading. Penn, who spent time in
Paris, was clearly influenced by Nadar as well.
The way in which Neel cropped her paintings also has a close relation to photography. Cropping
came to play an increasingly important role in her oeuvre, and it can be no coincidence that it did
so the more she looked at photography. “I lived with a man for many years who was a great
photographer,” she told Henry Geldzahler in reference to Brody, “and through him I had an
interest in photography.” Neel also had an involvement with Aperture, a photographic magazine
founded in 1952. Clearly she realised she could choose how to frame an image. In Richard at
Age Five (1945, cat. 25) the edge of the canvas slices off Richard’s right elbow as it does Art
Shields’s in the eponymous portrait of 1951 (cat. 28). Shields’s head of hair is also truncated so
that the viewer concentrates more on his facial features. John Perreault’s right elbow is omitted
from his nude portrait of 1972 (cat. 59), and the arms of Don Perlis in the late Don Perlis and
Jonathan (1982, cat. 70) are similarly cut off. These deliberate crops compress the image and
give it greater informality, immediacy and tension.
For an artist interested in portraiture of a realistic nature, photography was an obvious source of
interest. Neel confessed to an interest in Hine, Margaret Bourke-White and the German
photographer August Sander (fig. 10). In the interview with Brand Neel referred to an exhibition of
Bourke-White’s photographs at “the Russian embassy in the thirties” and reproductions of her
work in Life. She judged Hine to be “magnificent” and Sander as someone whose work she
“loved”. Sander’s typological project has certain parallels to Neel’s self-proclaimed purpose of
creating an equivalent to Honoré de Balzac’s Comédie humaine.
If there are parallels in themes, compositions and approaches to subjects between Neel and
various photographers past and contemporaneous, her address was substantially different, for a
painting is a composite image built over time from hand-applied material, in her case leaving
evidence of its build through brush strokes, pentimenti, changes of mind, and subjective choices
of colour. Painting is ultimately a fiction, an imaginative creation, where brush strokes are to the
final image as words are to a book. It is their accumulation that endows them with meaning.
Neel’s paintings are no more nor less real than the work of any abstract painter. They are
constructs. Daily Worker journalist Art Shields’s face, far from smooth, is a craggy massing of
short brush strokes interspersed with bare, primed canvas suggesting the dry skin of a man who
cared little for his personal appearance or retaining youthful skin (fig. 11). His ruggedness seems
to underpin his steadfast belief in the integrity of left wing causes, evinced in his piercing, blue
eyes staring at a distant vision of justice for all, redolent of Soviet photographs of pioneers. The
severe portrait of Sam, executed around the time of his definitive break from Neel in 1958,
Text © Jeremy Lewison
contains painterly passages, for example on his nose and forehead, which in themselves are a
series of semi-autonomous abstract marks but cumulatively make a convincing form (fig. 12, cat.
31). The bulbous shape down the left side of the bridge, the ragged maroon patch diagonally
down from it (reprised on his chin) and the trail of white that snakes its way up the bridge like
some kind of protozoan discharge, coalesce into a convincing nose that reflects light and creates
shade, but as a piece of pure painting is as abstract as the background that clearly mimics the
prevailing tendencies in Abstract Expressionist painting Neel would have seen in the galleries and
heard about on her attendance at meetings of the Club. In painting such backdrops, also seen for
example in Georgie Arce (1959, cat. 33), Neel was domesticating Abstract Expressionism,
feminising it, emasculating it even, suggesting, perhaps, it was no more than decorative.
Abstraction, Neel seemed to be saying, should be placed in the service of figuration; it was not an
end in itself.
It was no more purposefully employed than in the double portrait Rita and Hubert (1954, cat. 30).
Hubert Satterfield, like Alvin Simon (cat. 34), was one of a number of black writers Neel painted,
here with his white girlfriend Rita. The stark contrast between Rita’s bright flesh and Satterfield’s
blackness, exacerbated by the freely brushed, maroon background which, behind him, is darker
still and into which he sinks, conspires to make him less visible. Moreover, the bright and intricate
pattern of his shirt distracts the viewer’s eye from his face, which, but for the highlights on his
nose, cheeks, lips and chin and the whites of his eyes would otherwise fade into the unlit world of
the second class citizen. Visibility was the primary theme of a number of black writers in this
period, not least the prize winning author Ralph Ellison whose exposition of racism and black
activism, Invisible Man, published in 1952, took the American literary scene by storm. The black
narrator, who is neither described nor named in his first person account, establishes at the
beginning of the book that in spite of being “a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and
liquids … I am invisible … simply because people refuse to see me.” Neel translates this injustice
in American society in the most vividly visual and painterly way, while at the same time not
fearing to paint what was considered in this era of prejudice a transgressive relationship between
a black and a white. Neel saw people like Satterfield and Alvin Simon as equals.
The backgrounds to Neel’s portraits in this period, while embracing the prevailing idioms of
Abstract Expressionism, were not merely expertly wrought passages of pure painting, but could
also be pointed parodies. In the last portrait of Max White (1961, cat. 37) Neel paints a helmet of
marks around his head, as though referencing her description of her first portrait of White as an
Olmec head. Yet clearly she used these marks to cover up a shift in the contour of his cranium
that she balanced by the spiralling, gestural marks on the upper left of the painting, probably
pools of light, that call to mind, if not the swirling breasts on many of de Kooning’s Woman
paintings of the previous decade, then Ellie Poindexter’s ample bosoms in Neel’s acerbic portrait,
painted from memory, the following year (cat. 39). Neel seems knowingly to be mimicking de
Kooning, reclaiming these marks in her portrait of a withered, arthritic man and uneroticising the
mammaries of a powerful, female art dealer she disliked on acquaintance.

Text © Jeremy Lewison

Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
Alice Neel
Painter of Modern Life
“I hate the useof the word portrait.”
by Bice Curiger
Alice Neel knew that she could only say what she had to say through painting. The medium was
an existential necessity for her and it is the unerring ability to hone in on essentials in her
paintings of people that accounts for the extraordinary quality of this oeuvre. The likenesses of
her twentieth- century colleagues may seem too polished by comparison, bogged down by
convention or by an emphasis on form so wrought that the immediacy of the human encounter is
attenuated.
Alice Neel’s paintings show a great rightness of means in rendering straightforward events that
oscillate between accident and destiny. Palpable in these pictures is the contribution the sitters
make to the emergence of their likenesses through the intensity of their presence, so much so
that Robert Storr was motivated to comment, “You see time happen.”
It is astonishing and telling that, given her unconventional temperament, Neel chose to dedicate
herself to portrait art, which was more or less written off in the 20th century as one of the most
conventional of genres! Her declared antipathy to the word “portrait” must also be assessed in
this context, especially since she painted people who “sat” for her, as classical art terminology
has it.
What is more, it is impossible to overlook the patently attentive, alert presence and wordless
communication of Neel’s sitters. The people she portrays are “centred”, both relaxed and mindful,
wearing no armour metaphorically speaking, although they do occasionally reveal the way in
which they garner support from their protective shells, i.e. their clothing but also gestural crutches
and prostheses. “If there are very liberated people, I in turn feel very liberated and can paint them
in a more liberated way,” she said.
In 1967, at the height of conceptual art, Giulio Paolini reproduced in black-and-white the
Renaissance likeness of a young man painted in 1505 by Lorenzo Lotto. By calling it Giovane che
guarda Lorenzo Lotto (Young Man Looking at Lorenzo Lotto, fig. 43), Paolini highlighted the facts
that some five hundred years ago a young man directed his gaze at the artist while the latter
painted him – and that we, as viewers of the image, now take the place of the artist in the act of
painting.
Foregrounding the gaze, drawing attention to the meta- level of a likeness: Neel is not a
conceptual artist but her paintings once again confirm the assertion that good art is conceptual by
definition. Her paintings represent the art of the portrait in actu. Through her commitment to
figurative painting, she courageously defied the ideology that dominated the art scene in New
Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
York as the uncontested centre of post-war abstraction – which meant even more determined and
vigilant consideration of her contribution within the larger context.
Almost in passing, Neel once remarked that “My painting always includes the frame as part of the
composition,” as opposed to Russian painter Chaïm Soutine, who “is just like Rembrandt, inside
the frame.”
These statements draw attention to the somewhat curious way in which her sitters often fill the
space of her compositions. Neel establishes tension in the picture plane by wildly cropping the
figures and zooming in, not only on the face but also the body. In her grandson’s film, we see the
artist checking the framing by looking at the picture through the rectangle formed by her thumbs
and index fingers, a frequent gesture, according to her sons (fig. 44).
Neel’s sitters take a bold and innovative stance when modelling for her. Neel claimed that she did
not pose or arrange them, adding, in the same breath, that she observes how people sit down
when she is talking to them. “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. And then I compose something around that.”
In the film, we also learn that she occasionally suggested that her models undress and pose in
their underwear because their clothing – a three-piece suit, for example – did not match her
painting. In some cases they actually ended up naked on a bed or a couch. A case in point: Cindy
Nemser and Chuck (1975, fig. 45), who seem to express this very circumstance with every breath
of their being. Seeking protection, they have retired to a corner of the spacious couch, their
serious but trusting gaze directed toward the painter.
Fortunately for posterity, some of Neel’s sitters were interviewed for the 2007 lm, including Julie
from the painting Pregnant Julie and Algis (1967, cat. 47). Julie speaks of the incredibly powerful
and electrifying energy of an intense nonverbal dialogue; subjected to Alice’s laser gaze, she
finds that she is staring at herself.
Julie faces us, looking out at the world with confidence, her decisive attitude as a pregnant
woman is tangible in the panorama format of that painting that pictures her lying stretched out on
the bed. Her partner, still fully clothed, seems to protect her although he is almost hiding behind
her. The lively pattern of the red blanket underneath captures some of the tension of the moment,
while Neel’s characteristically blue contours outline the woman’s body with masterful cogency,
like a tender arabesque of liberty. “There is a new freedom for women to be themselves, to find
out what they really are.”
It has become so commonplace that we hardly notice anymore how fundamentally cultural
change over the past hundred years has including the frame in her compositions, by which she
probably also meant the zeitgeist, “the feel of an era”, to which she so often referred.
In 1968, a year after she had painted naked, pregnant Julie and her partner, the picture appeared
on the cover of the then tone-setting Village Voice. It must have struck like a bombshell, breaking
Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
taboos in more than one way. For one thing, the self-con dent, perfectly natural image, an
extremely unusual motif in painting, quite literally embodied the raging battle against the
puritanism of bourgeois culture and society. For another, pregnancy was a taboo subject for
feminists for fear that it could be enlisted as an argument “to send women back to their suburban
prisons”.
Formally, Neel’s painting of John Perreault (1972, cat. 59), is the naked male counterpart to Julie.
Stretched out, he lies there with legs bent, quiet and pensive, his genitalia unabashedly exposed.
There is nothing laboured about the profound intimacy of Neel’s paintings. “Psychological” is a
term repeatedly invoked by writers and critics but what does that actually mean? Her work
records a readiness to trust and con de. It reveals an awareness of others that unfolds in thrilling
repose, leading to an encounter of a special order that takes time and allows for an unusual,
communicative exchange.
In The Family (Algis, Julie and Bailey) (cat. 48), Neel painted the same couple again a year later
in 1968, now with their baby; the lackadaisical nonchalance of their pose is staggering. Algis,
centred in the composition, casually holds the child with one hand, the thumb of his other hand
hooked into the pocket of his jeans (fig. 46). Their faces are questioning, serious and open,
lending the painting a near existential urgency. But in the final analysis, the urgency lies in the
very fact that these people are painted!
In the early days of photography, models had to stand immobile for minutes at a time and, as a
rule, the pictures portray rigid, buttoned-up people, decked out in their Sunday best. Now that
snapshot photography has become an omnipresent, all-embracing documentary companion in
every life situation, Neel deliberately cultivates an entirely different ritual when she captures her
images. She imposes a wilfully prolonged investment of time on her sitters, beginning with the
extended journey they have to take in order to reach her studio – which is her apartment.
Brigid Berlin recounts that Andy Warhol asked her “to go with him to Alice Neel’s because he was
afraid to go to Harlem by himself. I couldn’t believe we were going all the way up there.” In Neel’s
1970 painting of him, Warhol is seen facing front, seated and naked to the waist, exposing his
invasive scars and assaulted body (cat. 51). The vulnerability is palpable in the artist’s gentle,
tender brushstrokes. Avoiding her gaze, Warhol has his eyes introspectively averted. We are
reminded of his secrets: Andy the Catholic, the churchgoer, his closely guarded inner life.
Although he is wearing a corset, his hips seem to bulge and overflow, underscoring the feminine
aspect. There is even something girlish about the way he is sitting with his legs and narrow feet
so straight and close together. There is a touching, astonishing intimacy in the likeness of this
inscrutable, provocatively indifferent figure that dominated twentieth-century art.
An important detail catches the eye in Warhol’s portrait: his very small hands. He is holding a
cloth or his undershirt. Hands in Neel’s pictures are important indicators of character but they are
also formal anchors for the figure in the composition and often appear variously distorted,
sometimes scaled-down, as in Henry Geldzahler (1967, cat. 44); emphasized with mannered
Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
positions of the fingers, as in Sherry Speeth (1964, fig. 15); holding hands in an exchange of
strength and warmth among couples; or resembling the claws of a bird, as in Mother and Child
(Nancy & Olivia) (1967, cat. 46).
Not only did Neel occasionally stylize her models’ hands, their arms may also be explicitly
emphasized, almost like overlong sausages, and yet, within the context as a whole, it is these
elements that lend the compositions cogency, speed and even a wilful nonchalance. Rudimentary
planes of colour around the figures morph into portions that are not completely “coloured in” so
that we still see patches of primed canvas. Warhol is sitting on a bed, drawn in subtle contours
that appear to have been pushed into the painting from the left, almost like a little wooden perch
for a canary. Sparing, light-blue brushstrokes around his torso fan out above his right shoulder
into the shape of a wing, reinforcing the birdlike implications or, in fact, actually transforming Andy
into an angel. Neel frequently consolidates her figures by framing them in bold brushstrokes,
thereby also underscoring the autonomy and vibrancy of the colouring and flow of her paintings.

Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels


Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
Alice Neel
Painter of Modern Life
A Modern Woman’s Social Conscience
by Annamari Vänskä
A direct, challenging gaze. Long, dark hair. A man’s white collared shirt and red-and-white striped
trousers. Leaning slightly forward, the figure looks as she might rise at any moment and attack
the viewer.
The subject of Alice Neel’s 1970 painting was the radical feminist Kate Millett, an icon of secondwave
feminism. The portrait was commissioned by Time magazine that year, around the time
Millett published Sexual Politics, which went on to become a classic of feminist literature. The
book immediately gained cult status owing to its harsh critique of the patriarchal social system.
Literary scholar Millett argued that such major figures of twentieth-century Western literature as
American writers Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, as well as English author D. H. Lawrence,
demonstrated in their works a social system based on machismo and hatred of women and
homosexuals.
Although Sexual Politics met with a mixed reception, it soon became the bible of the feminist
movement as Millett became its figurehead. When Time wanted to personify the movement on its
“Women’s Lib” cover, it was no wonder that the magazine chose Millett as the subject. To portray
her, it hired Alice Neel, an American painter who was establishing her status as a major female
artist. The writer did not like the idea, however. She refused to pose, telling Neel that no single
individual could personify a broad social movement. As a result Neel had to resort to using
photographs of Millett to create her painting. This may also lie behind the picture’s alleged
angriness. Although the portrait undoubtedly symbolises the feminist movement’s anger, it may
also represent Neel’s dissatisfaction at the model’s refusal to cooperate.
No matter how it is interpreted, the commission for Time speaks to Neel’s status in the American
art world. Neel did become more broadly known and recognised through the feminist movement.
In the same way that Millett criticised Western literature’s failure to recognise women, feminist art
criticism lashed the art world for its androcentrism. The early seventies was the era when women
began to gain a higher pro le as artists. Another American feminist art historian, and a soon-tobecome
friend of Neel’s, Linda Nochlin, published her well-known essay “Why Have There Been
No Great Women Artists?” in ARTnews in 1971. The 40-year-old Nochlin asked simply why the
art history canon did not recognise any great female artistic geniuses. This influential, polemical
essay questioned the white-male-dominated history of art and demonstrated that its concept of
“genius” was completely masculine. Nochlin also claimed that women had not made it into the art
world because their status was both socially and societally weaker than that of men and because
art schools did not admit them as students. Nochlin laid the blame on the “romantic, elitist,
individual-glorifying and monograph- producing substructure upon which the profession of art
Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
history is based.” Thus she accused all the players in the art world, from researchers to museum
curators, who favoured and exhibited male artists.
Nochlin’s critical essay set into motion a feminist art revolution that previously remained under the
surface, and that benefited Neel among others. Many feminist art publications and activist groups
popped up on the American art scene, including Women Artists in Revolution (WAR), the Los
Angeles Council of Women Artists (LACMA), the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Group, Women in the
Arts (WIA) and the Women’s Caucus for Art (WCA). In 1979, Neel was one of five artists
honoured by the latter group with its first Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Neel may well be considered an example of how the rise of feminist art criticism began to raise
“forgotten” women out of the depths of history and onto pedestals. The feminist movement made
room for women artists who are now both globally known and recognised, as well as for a
generation of feminist art historians who have carried on a critical analysis of the art historical
canon, adding female artists to it until the present day. Neel was one of the first living female
artists to enjoy the fruits of this change. In spite of this, she had an ambivalent attitude towards
feminism. While she conceded that she was discriminated against as an artist because of her
gender, she also said that she had always respected men more than women. “Women terrified
me. I thought they were stupid because all they did was keep children and dogs in order,” Neel’s
biographer Phoebe Hoban quotes her as saying.
Regardless of Neel’s personal view of women, feminism and the movement’s relationship to
herself, it is clear that her career as an artist is a powerful example of a social change set in
motion by feminism, and an affirmation of it. When Neel was born on 28 January 1900 into an
ordinary lower- middle-class family in Pennsylvania, a middle-class woman’s opportunities to
pursue a career – not to mention an artistic career – were close to nil. By the time she died on 13
October 1984, women had become some of the central figures in the art world as researchers,
critics and artists. Neel is known to have said: “I am the century.” Even though she was referring
to her age, Neel’s life and work exemplify how radically the position of women artists changed
socially in fewer than one hundred years.
Neel was born in the Victorian era, characterised by strict customs, class structure and
categorical separation of the sexes. She died in an era when that social system was history and
women had attained many of the privileges previously reserved for men. Neel came of age in the
heyday of the suffragette movement during the First World War. She was past middle age by the
time she experienced the second wave of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution in the
sixties.
All of this can be seen in Neel’s work. Unlike most nineteenth-century female artists, she did not
content herself with depicting the domestic and private realm. Neel painted her friends, homeless
street people, public spaces and famous individuals. Her human figures do not t the traditional
gender roles: the men do not look heroic or the women weak. Nor did Neel shy away from
subjects that were considered improper for women, such as nudity. In her portraits people are
often naked, regardless of their gender, age or status, without cultural status symbols. Her
Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
subjects’ nudity is not idealised, either. Every fold of skin, wrinkle or other body form is
exaggerated. For Neel, the body was material to be shaped and stripped of hierarchies linked to
various values. This can also be seen in the gallery of individuals represented in her portraits.
Posing in these works are members of the intelligentsia and the cream of society along with those
marginalised by society in various ways: New York’s Latinos, African-Americans, gays and drag
queens. Indeed the driving theme of Neel’s output is her social consciousness. This was most
likely shaped by her own status as a female artist in the male-dominated art world, her political
convictions as a member of the Communist Party and the changes in women’s societal rights that
she experienced.
In her youth Neel witnessed the rise of the suffragette movement and how the radical National
Women’s Party (NWP) harshly criticised President Woodrow Wilson over his failure to allow
universal suffrage in the second decade of the century. This led to the imprisonment of members
of the movement in 1917, and eventually to women gaining the vote in 1920. Although Neel is not
known to have taken part in the suffragette movement, she began her university studies in 1921,
right after women gained the right to vote. She chose to study at the largest US women’s art
school, the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. Established in 1848, its aim was rather
feminist and even revolutionary: to teach women a profession. It was also known as a place
where female artists were allowed to draw nude models, unlike nearly all other art schools.
Neel could well be described as a “modern woman”, the kind who for the first time in Western
history had an opportunity to fulfill herself by working outside of her home. Neel was a tomboy, a
flapper or a garçonne – which was considered to be “the new breed of women”. Neel dressed
tomboyishly in trousers or skirts that showed her legs and she was sexually liberated. She
disregarded traditional codes of decency or behaviour expected of women. She personified the
ideal of the emancipated modern woman who had experienced the First World War and the
manner in which the most destructive war in history had paradoxically improved her social and
societal visibility. When the men were away at war, women had to take responsibility on the home
front. No wonder Neel could go off to study. She enjoyed freedoms that had been denied to the
previous generation of women. The works she painted for public spaces also testified to this:
women could now go anywhere without chaperones and do whatever today’s women take for
granted.
According to Neel, she chose the Philadelphia School of Design for Women for its freedom: “I
didn’t want to be taught a formal form. At least where I went it wasn’t too organised, but you had
freedom. You could do as you wanted, which was the most important thing in my life.” Neel’s
desire for freedom also aroused bewilderment. As she put it, this was because she “didn’t want to
pour tea” or to wear “fluffy dresses”, in other words to be a polite, obedient girl who would return
home after art school to start a traditional family. Unlike many of her classmates, Neel was highly
class-conscious and saw art as an arena for social criticism: “I worked so hard…not for my own
family, but for all the poor in the world. Because when I’d go into the school, the scrubwomen
would be coming back from scrubbing of floors all night. It killed me that these old gray-headed
women had to scrub floors, and I was going in there to draw Greek statues.”
Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
Constructing this dramatic polarisation between working- class women and art school students is
revealing of Neel’s character of course, but also of her efforts to depict reality in a critical,
unvarnished way. For instance, she had a sceptical view of Impressionism, saying that she “didn’t
see life as Picnic on the Grass” and that she “wasn’t happy like Renoir”. Neel dismissed the
portraits of women and children by the leading American female painter, Mary Cassatt, calling
them overly polished and conservative (fig. 50). As Neel sought to paint realistically, warts and all,
she was considered too direct in her own time. It is precisely that directness that speaks to
today’s generations, which have grown up in the era of photography. Neel’s works are fresh and
timely.
Some of Neel’s paintings, such as the mother-and-child image, Degenerate Madonna, from 1930
(fig. 51, cat. 3), which combine symbolism and gritty realism, are far from her contemporary
female artists’ portrayals of idyllic bourgeois family life. Unlike, say, Cassatt’s pastel warmth and
paintings suffused with maternal love, Neel’s vision of motherhood is downright oppressive. There
is no warmth, only death and loss: the woman’s and child’s proportions are distorted, the
woman’s face is like a mask, the child’s skull is shaped like that of an alien, and both have
corpse-like skin that is waxy and white. Another difference from Cassatt is that Neel’s works
depict her own experiences, unlike Cassatt, who never married or had children. Although the
maternal model for Degenerate Madonna was Neel’s close friend Nadya Olyanova, the painting
may also be seen as a self-portrait. Neel created it just before her committal to a mental hospital,
where she was treated for a year following a nervous breakdown. At the same time, her life was
overshadowed by other concerns. Neel had fallen in love with Cuban artist Carlos Enríquez, with
whom she had her first daughter, Santillana, who died in 1927 of diphtheria, before reaching her
first birthday. Neel was soon pregnant again and gave birth to another daughter, Isabetta, in
1928. Two years later, she lost this child too when Enríquez took her to be raised by relatives in
Cuba without asking Neel’s permission. The tragic nature of the painting can be seen as
questioning the norms of motherhood, which was not appreciated by her contemporaries. When
the work was exhibited at the First Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit in New York in 1932, it
stirred condemnation probably because of its blasphemous title, and was censored following a
protest by the Catholic Church. Triggering such a furore makes Neel seem like an utterly
contemporary artist.
One could even argue that shocking and breaking down the conventions of academic painting
were key elements of Neel’s artistic output. Another example is her self-portrait from 1980 (cat.
66). In this sketch-like work, the 80-year-old artist poses nude, seated in an armchair, wearing
glasses and holding a paintbrush. The artist’s gaze is penetrating and aimed directly at the
viewer. The ageing woman’s body is shown with sagging cheeks, breasts and belly. Neel does
not hide or show shame over her deteriorating body but rather challenges us to consider the
charged relationship between old age and nudity. Why do we not want to see the ageing body?
Why do we only worship youth?
Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels


Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
Alice Neel
Painter of Modern Life
Alice Neel, a Marxist Girl on Capitalism
by Laura Stamps
La Víbora, Havana, Cuba
Neel’s ideas about art were formed in Havana (Cuba), where she and her Cuban husband Carlos
Enríquez (1900–1957, g. 33) lived from January 1926 to May 1927. The dictatorship of Gerardo
Machado y Morales was under pressure, and Cuba was experiencing turbulent times. Although
the couple lived with Enríquez’s parents in a very prosperous suburb for the first few months, they
regularly went into the city to paint portraits of people from the lowest social classes. Both painted
in a realist style, though Enríquez’s work was more romantic than Neel’s. After several months
they moved to La Víbora, a deprived neighbourhood where many left-leaning writers and artists
had made their home. During this heyday of Cuban literature Neel met writers like Nicolás Guillén
(1902–1989), Marcelo Pogolotti (1902–1988) and Alejo Carpentier (1904–1980), and became
familiar with the methods they used to depict a society in process of change. She discovered,
partly thanks to them, that art could be a political act. In their books they described the impact of
American Imperialism on ordinary people’s lives in Latin America. Neel shared their antiAmerican
sentiments. In the years that followed, her own personal life was unsettled. She gave
birth to a daughter who died at the age of one, and then she and Enríquez separated, one of the
consequences being that their second daughter was raised by his family in Cuba. All these
events led Neel to suffer a nervous breakdown and she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for
treatment. At that time, her work was mainly autobiographical.
Greenwich Village, New York
By 1931 the tide appeared to have turned, and she moved to Greenwich Village. It was an
interesting time to move to this part of New York. In response to the Great Depression, the artists,
intellectuals and writers who lived there had become interested in Marxism, and many also
became politically active. It was in Greenwich Village that Neel, who became a member of the
Communist Party herself in 1935, started producing “revolutionary paintings”. She developed her
characteristic style, tending on the one hand towards Expressionism, and yet also towards the
documentary, as propagandised in leftist circles. Although Neel produced a number of paintings
there with explicitly political subjects, the majority of her work clearly consisted of portraits – a
striking number of them of leading Communist figures. As in La Víbora, her artistic friends and
acquaintances included many journalists, writers and poets. Thus she produced a ne group of
portraits of proletarian writers, including Sam Putnam, Joe Gould and Max White. The most
striking of these was Joe Gould (1889–1957), a phenomenon in Greenwich Village. He was
constantly hanging around drunk in bars and restaurants, working every day on a book he called
“An Oral History of Our Time”, an idea that came to him in 1917 when he was working as a
reporter for the New York Evening Mail. “What we used to think was history – kings and queens,
Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
treaties, inventions, big battles…is only formal history and largely false. I’ll put down the informal
history of the shirt- sleeved multitude,” he said. Gould was supported in his endeavour by certain
private individuals and by the Federal Writers Project. His “Oral History” would never see the light
of day, however.
Alice Neel painted two portraits of Gould in 1933 (cat. 8). By far the best known shows a grinning
male nude standing before us, legs apart, knees slightly bent. Gould’s genitals appear not only
between his legs. Another penis and scrotum can be seen beneath his navel, and yet another
“set” appears from beneath the stool. The genitals of two men standing either side of him can
also be seen. Could these be echoes of his delusions of grandeur? He was after all engaged
in “the greatest literary project of all time”, the completion of which was already in doubt, given his
drink problem and his psychological instability. It was known that Neel sympathised with the
eccentric Gould. She remained concerned for him long after his patrons had dropped him. So
why did she make him look so ridiculous? Did Gould’s “Oral History of Our Time” give Neel the
idea of creating a “visual history of her time” by portraying people from all levels of society? This
is at any rate the ideal way of reconciling the genre of the portrait – which left-wingers generally
associated with personal glorification – with Communist ideals. Neel may have painted this
grotesque portrait of Gould to convince herself that Gould, the kindred spirit, was actually her
opposite. The portrait of Gould as a spectre, was a constant reminder to convince herself that,
though it might take many sacrifices and a lot of patience, her “Visual History” would one day see
the light of day. The fact is that no other portrait by Neel is known to include the name of the
subject alongside and the same size as her surname, which serves as her signature. It looks very
much like Neel not only found her own style of painting in Greenwich Village, but also an allembracing
artistic concept which allowed her to reconcile her personal ambitions as an artist with
the collective goals of Communism.
Spanish Harlem, New York
In 1938 Neel moved to Spanish Harlem, a much poorer New York neighbourhood, where she
would continue to live until 1962, working steadily on her “Visual History”. She portrayed people
from the street, alongside her portraits of Communist activists. She probably identified with
people like Art Shields, a reporter for the Daily Worker, and Ford union organiser Bill McKie (fig.
34), who remained faithful to the party’s ideals at a time when it was simply not done to be
Communist in America. The use of colour, the lack of a clearly defined background and the
emphasis on external characteristics in these portraits from 1951 (cat. 28) and 1953 (fig. 34)
conjure associations with Van Gogh’s paintings from his Arles period. He used intensely
contrasting colours to portray normal life, as in his portraits of an old woman, a pipe-smoking
farmer and a postman. With this reference to Van Gogh (fig. 35), Neel was paying tribute both to
the leading Communists and to the artist whose Humanist art was admired within the Party. Thus,
she once more underlined the fact that she was working on something that, though it clearly
concerned herself, also transcended the personal.
Spanish Harlem is also the place where Neel gave birth to sons Richard (b. 1939) and Hartley (b.
1941), whose fathers were José Santiago Negrón and Sam Brody respectively. Neel’s
Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels
relationship with Brody, a photographer, documentary maker and a founder of the “Workers’ Film
and Photo League”, would last for almost 20 years. She regularly portrayed Sam, Richard and
Hartley during this period. This not only gives us a view of the different stages of their lives, and
their different moods, it also shows how the world around them was changing, as reflected in the
clothes they wore, for example. Although she painted only her sons and lovers repeatedly, and
later her daughters-in-law and grandchildren, she also produced several paintings of a few other
people. For instance, between 1950 and 1959 she regularly painted Georgie Arce of Spanish
Harlem (1959, fig. 36 and cat. 33). In one she would emphasise his childlike innocence or
playfulness, while in another his intense look would dominate the picture. However, the most
striking thing about this series of portraits is his growing tendency to strike the pose of a Puerto
Rican gangster (complete with knife!). Was Arce adopting this attitude because it reflected some
internal development in him, or because it was expected of him in the social milieu of Spanish
Harlem? Was he living up to the preconceived ideas of the white ruling classes as to how a poor
Puerto Rican would develop? Whatever the answer, we cannot help but relate to Arce when
looking at Neel’s portraits of him. During Neel’s time in Spanish Harlem issues of race and
discrimination were high on the Communist Party’s agenda. Neel reveals this in all its complexity
in her portraits of Arce. For whom or what do we actually see in this series? Arce himself, Neel’s
representation of him, our own views, or all these things at once, in some kind of “blur”?
Beginning in 1955 Neel began to attend meetings of the Club, an artists’ discussion group
founded by non-representational gestural painters and sculptors who had broken with academic
idioms. In doing so she slowly seemed to find a context for her work away from the Communist
circle, although some of the Club attendees were undoubtedly also Communist sympathisers. In
1959 Neel acted alongside Allen Ginsberg in the lm Pull My Daisy (based on a play by Jack
Kerouac). Writers Ginsberg and Kerouac belonged to the Beats, a group to which Neel was also
attracted, because it so clearly opposed American bourgeois morality. The movement was soon
annexed by the media, which coined the term “beatnik” (based on the Russian word “sputnik”).
The term signified an archetypal intellectual with a beard and a roll-neck sweater, to whom
American youngsters who wanted nothing to do with “superficial” pop music and motorcycle
culture could relate. Aspects of beat culture were adopted by the hippy movement in the 1960s,
at a time when countercultures were no longer actively opposed, or ignored, but actually acquired
cult status. Neel was well aware that this was her moment. Making a “visual history of your time”
was one thing, but it would only be “read” if the “writer” was famous. Neel was 60 by now, and if
she was not to end up like Joe Gould she would have to act fast.

Text © Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery and Mercatorfonds, Brussels

Alice Neel website: http://www.aliceneel.com/

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