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 Alice Neel  (1900 - 1984)

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: modernist portrait and still life painting, sculpture

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Alice Neel
from Auction House Records.
Jackie Curtis and Rita Red
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Alice Neel was born on January 28, 1900 in Merion Square, Pennsylvania and grew up in Colwyn, Pennsylvania before attending the Philadelphia College of Art and Design (now Moore College of Art) from 1921 until 1925.  Her father was a clerk for the Pennsylvania Railroad; her mother could trace her lineage back to a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

She always wanted to be an artist.  She is primarily known for the expressive portraits she began to paint shortly after moving to New York City in 1927.  She prefered the term "figure painting" to "portrait" with its connotation of hackwork and flattery.

In 1925 Neel married Carlos Enriquez, a fellow artist who took her to Cuba to live with his wealthy family.  It was Neel's leap from Colwyn into another class and culture, a bohemian life.  In 1927 they moved to New York City with their baby daughter, Santillana; the child died of diphtheria before she was a year old.  A second child, Isabella, was born in 1928.  By 1930 the couple found it impossible to support themselves in New York.  Enriquez took Isabella to Cuba, ostensibly for a visit, but then went on to Paris by himself to paint.  Alice Neel refused to have the child with her, and Isabella remained in Cuba.

In 1932, she began to work at the frantic pace she maintained to the end of her life. Eventually Neel broke down over the torment between her love for her child and the need to paint.  In the summer of 1930 she suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide.  The horror of the year she spent in confinement stayed with her but being encouraged to draw again was what finally made her attempt to get well successful.

In 1931, she headed for Greenwich Village and the bohemian life her psychiatrists had warned her against.  She took up with Kenneth Doolittle, an intellectual sailor and opium smoker.  During the 1930s and 1940s Neel painted the city and its residents, using her friends, family and neighbors as subjects, especially after she moved to Spanish Harlem.  She worked for the Federal Art Project of the WPA from 1933 through 1943, developing her interest in radical politics and culture.  She was required to turn out an oil painting every six weeks, and was paid $26.88 a week for her street scenes of New York.

Neel continued to seek out opposites in her life. She enjoyed painting scenes of the lower depths all day and then dining at the Harvard Club with John Rothschild, the "super-aesthete" whom she had met at an outdoor art exhibition in Washington Square. He fell in love with her and her paintings and would remain her friend until his death in 1975. Jealous of Rothschild's courtship of her, Doolittle slashed sixty of her paintings and burned three hundred drawings. It took her years to recover.

In the winter of 1935-36, she met Jose Santiago, a Puerto Rico guitarist and nightclub entertainer, who became a substitute for her Cuban husband.  He left her in 1939, shortly after their son Richard was born, but she stayed on in Spanish Harlem for twenty-five years, raising their son and another, Hartley, by the Russian filmmaker and photographer Samuel Brody.

Neel's art developed independently of the numerous styles and groups that succeeded one another from 1930 to 1980. She refused, indeed was unable, to flatter her subjects; combined with her insistence on recording the complete personality as she encountered it in painting resulted in producing a body of portraiture remorseless in its honesty.  Neel's sitters rarely purchased the finished portraits, possibly a testimony to this accuracy.  She died on October 13, 1984.

Written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.

Sources:
National Museum of Women in the Arts Catalogue.
"Alice Neel and the Human Comedy" by Judith Higgins in ARTnews, October 1984
"The Human Creature" by Ann Sutherland Harris in Portfolio, December/January 1979-80
From the internet, AskART.com


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Alice Neel was an expressive figure and portrait painter whose themes were broken family bonds and the cruel conditions of urban society.  Many of her subjects were nudes, and her realistic, figurative subjects were against the grain of the prevalent Abstract Expressionism.  However, in the 1960s, she had the satisfaction of seeing the public's interest catch up with her style and subjects.

As a female painter, she became a cult figure within the feminist community, but she did not get much recognition until later in her life.  She was 62 before the first major article about her appeared in ARTNews, and it was titled "Introducing the Portraits of Alice Neel."  By then she had been painting in obscurity for 30 years and had raised two sons by herself.

Born in Merion, Pennsylvania, Neel moved to New York City in 1927 from Colwyn, Pennsylvania where she was raised.  She studied at the Philadelphia College of Art and Design, later Moore College of Art, from 1921 to 1925, and then moved to New York City in 1927.  She lived in Spanish Harlem and was known for working at a frantic pace at her painting and combining her subject matter with her interest in radical politics and culture.

Her style was independent of most contemporaneous styles, and she remained committed to a style that was basically representational but allowed her to place symbolic marks on bodies that showed psychological and physical scars.  Because of this method, her portraits were relentlessly real. Included among her subjects were major figures of the day such as Virgil Thompson, Andy Warhol, and Linus Pauling.

In July, 1998, a retrospective was held at the Tacoma Art Museum in Tacoma, Washington.

Source:
Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists


Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia:
Alice Neel was born in 1900 outside of Philadelphia.  Immediately following high school, she attended her first art classes at night while employed as a secretary.  Neel progressed at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women where she won prizes in several portrait classes.  Upon graduation, she embarked upon a career as an artist, but her personal relationships define much of this early phase of her career. 

She married a fellow artist, Carlos Enríquez, and moved to Cuba where they lived at his family’s home.  After the birth and death of her first child, she became estranged from her husband, and soon she began an affair with Kenneth Doolittle (a sailor who later destroyed over 300 pieces of her work).  Her relationships were an integral faction of her life, although the weight of them on her art is yet fully to be explored. In addition, the births and death of her children and her own precarious mental state are definitive factors in her life and art.(1)

Neel exhibited in various independent and well-supported exhibitions in New York, including her first one-person show in 1938.  She was also fortunate to receive a steady government paycheck through the WPA during the 1930s. By this time Neel’s painting explored and focused on impassioned portraiture as she portrayed the people around her, from liberal writers and artists in Spanish Harlem, to family, friends, critics and other members of the art scene in New York.  Such direct and psychologically charged portraiture became her signature.  As most critics have discovered, “…Neel seems to detect a hidden weakness in her sitters which she drags out, yelping, into the clear glare of day.”(2)

Neel painted portraits during her entire career.  Her work is not defined easily and classifying it with any pre-determined art historical category seems futile.  As she herself stated, “I never followed any school. I never imitated any artist. I never did any of that. I believe what I am is a humanist. That’s the way I see the world, and that is what I paint.”(3)  She maintained that “life” was the theme of her work and that her desire to paint portraits evolved from her belief that contemporary artists were doing portraits without life.  She believed she was describing the barbarity of life, in other words, the difficulty of living, in paintings.(4)  Her commissioned portraits were always able to capture the essence of the sitter, or sitters, as she did many group sittings of two or more figures. Nevertheless, her personal portraits seem to have allowed her to establish a dialogue with the model or models that transcend the merely reflective.  Rather than project any personal agenda onto her sitters, Neel’s figures exude feeling through their posture, body language, costumes, and especially their faces.

Footnotes:
1. For biographical information see Patricia Hills, Alice Neel (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983); Pamela Allara, Pictures of People: Alice Neel’s American Portrait Gallery (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998).
2. Lawrence Campbell, Reviews and Previews: Alice Neel,” Artnews 69 (November 1970), 24. Quoted in Ann Temkin, editor, Alice Neel (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000), 172.
3. Eleanor Munro, Originals: American Women Artists (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 128.
4. Ibid, 130.
Submitted by the Staff of the Columbus Museum

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Alice Neel is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
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