Alice Neel (January 28, 1900 – October 13, 1984) was an American artist known for her oil on canvas portraits of friends, family, lovers, poets, artists and strangers. Her paintings are notable for their expressionistic use of line and color, psychological acumen, and emotional intensity.
Alice Neel was born in Merion Square, Pennsylvania, and moved to the rural town of Colwyn, Pennsylvania, when she was about three months old. She took the Civil Service exam and got a high-paying clerical position after high school in order to help support her parents. After three years of work, taking art classes by night in Philadelphia, Neel finally enrolled full-time in the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. Neel often said that she chose to attend an all-girls school so as not to be distracted from her art by the temptations of the opposite sex.
Shortly after finishing her studies Neel married a Cuban painter named Carlos Enríquez, the son of wealthy parents. They were wed in 1925 and moved to Havana the following year to live with Enríquez’s family. In Havana, Neel was embraced by the burgeoning Cuban avant-garde, a set of young writers, artists and musicians. In this environment Neel developed the foundations of her life long political consciousness and commitment to equality.
In 1926 she became pregnant with her first child. Following the birth of her daughter, Santillana, Alice returned to her parents’ home in Colwyn. Carlos followed soon after, and the family moved to New York City. Just before Santillana’s first birthday, she died of diphtheria. The trauma caused by Santillana’s death infused the content of Neel’s paintings, setting a precedent for the themes of motherhood, loss, and anxiety that permeated her work for the duration of her career.
Immediately following Santillana’s death, Neel became pregnant with her second child, Isabetta. Isabetta’s birth in 1928 inspired the creation of “Well Baby Clinic”, a bleak portrait of mothers and babies in a maternity clinic more reminiscent of an insane asylum than a nursery.
In the spring of 1930, Carlos returned to Cuba, taking Isabetta with him. Mourning the loss of her husband and daughter, Neel suffered a massive nervous breakdown. After a brief period of hospitalization, she attempted suicide. She was placed in the suicide ward of the Philadelphia General Hospital. Deemed stable almost a year later, Neel was released from the sanitorium in 1931 and returned to her parents’ home. Following an extended visit with her close friend and frequent subject, Nadya Olyanova, Neel returned to New York.
There Neel painted the local characters, including Joe Gould, whom she famously depicted with multiple penises in 1933. Her world was composed of artists, intellectuals, and political leaders of the Communist Party, all of whom became subjects for her paintings. Her work glorified subversion and sexuality, depicting whimsical scenes of lovers and nudes.
At the end of 1933, Neel was hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which afforded her a modest weekly salary. In the 1930s Neel gained a degree of notoriety as an artist, and established a good standing within her circle of downtown intellectuals and Communist Party leaders. While Neel was never an official Communist Party member, her affiliation and sympathy with the ideals of Communism remained constant.
In 1939 Neel gave birth to her first son, Richard, the child of Jose Santiago, a Puerto Rican night-club singer whom Neel met in 1935. Neel moved to Spanish Harlem. She began painting her neighbors, particularly women and children. José left Neel in 1940.
Neel’s second son, Hartley, was born in 1941 to Neel and her lover, communist intellectual Sam Brody. In this decade, Neel made illustrations for the Communist publication, Masses & Mainstream, and continued to paint portraits from her uptown home. Between 1940 and 1950, Neel’s art virtually disappeared from galleries, save for one solo show in 1944. In the 1950s, Neel’s friendship with Mike Gold and his admiration for her social realist work garnered her a show at the Communist-inspired New Playwrights Theatre.
Neel even made a film appearance in 1959, after director Robert Frank asked her to appear alongside a young Allen Ginsberg in his classic Beatnik film, Pull My Daisy. The following year, her work was first reproduced in ARTnews Magazine.
Toward the end of the 1960s, interest in Neel’s work intensified. The momentum of the Women’s Movement led to increased attention, and Neel became an icon for Feminists. In 1970 Neel was commissioned to paint Feminist activist Kate Millett for the cover of Time magazine. In 1974, Neel’s work was given a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and posthumously, in the summer of 2000, also at the Whitney.
By the mid-1970s, Neel had gained celebrity and stature as an important American artist. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter presented her with a National Women’s Caucus for Art award for outstanding achievement. Neel’s reputation was at its height at the time of her death in 1984.
Neel’s life and works are featured in the documentary “Alice Neel,” which premiered at the 2007 Slamdance Film Festival and was directed by her grandson, Andrew Neel. The film was given a New York theatrical release in April of that year.
Alice Neel was to be the subject of the upcoming retrospective “Alice Neel: Painted Truths” organized by The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, and on view March 21-June 15, 2010. The exhibition will travel to Whitechapel Gallery, London and Moderna Museet Malmö, Malmö.
The Estate of Alice Neel is represented by David Zwirner, New York, Victoria Miro Gallery, London and Galerie Aurel Scheibler, Berlin, and is advised by Jeremy Lewison Ltd.