Alice Neel: Moments of Intimacy through Portraiture

Alice Neel had an unflinching gaze. Her portraits of ordinary people in everyday life expose the raw human form simultaneously with palpable feeling and expression. There is a sense of seeing the person while also seeing through them.  Each image leaves you with a moment of intimacy, whether or not you actually wanted it. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is featuring Neel’s work in a retrospective through August 1st.  “A painter’s painter,” artist Kaeley Boyle describes her work as, “Luscious studies in human portraiture. Her fleshy bodies are built with vibrant colors and confident brushstrokes. Sometimes haunting and always honest.” 

Alice’s Muse: Hypersensitivity

Alice Neel was born in 1900 in Merion Square, Pennsylvania and moved to Colwyn shortly after she was born. Her father worked for the railroad and rumors indicated that her mother descended from Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Her childhood was predictable and materially comfortable though this did not prevent Neel from experiencing anxiety as a child.  Neel as an adult credited her artistry to her temperament, “You know what it takes to be an artist? Hypersensitivity and the will of the devil. To never give up.”

A seemingly fragile temperament did not hold Alice Back. Alice Neel went to the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art and Design) at night.  She chose the realism of the Ashcan school over the more popular Impressionism of the time.  She graduated in 1925, but not before she met her first husband, Carlos Enríquez. They married and moved to Havana where they lived with his family.  Cuba’s progressive and unconventional art culture shaped Neel’s both artistically and politically.  She cemented her political commitment to equity and social justice while in Cuba.  Her portraits are unapologetically political and her choice to spend twenty years in Spanish Harlem reflected her desire to embrace and celebrate diversity.  The Met’s titled her retrospective, “Alice Neel: People Come First.” Aptly named, it is an accurate representation of her embrace of humanity in all of its forms.

Turning Struggle Into Art

Alice Neel’s life was not without heartache.  Alice and Carlos lost their daughter Santillana to diphtheria before she turned one.  The loss of Santillana was channeled into paintings of mothers and children and loss.  Neel went on to have three more children. Her second daughter, Isabella Lillian, was born in 1928.  They called her Isabetta. When Isabetta was two, Carlos claimed he was going overseas to Paris to look for a place for them to live. Instead he took Isabetta to Cuba. They would not return to New York and Isabetta would be raised by her paternal extended family. 

The loss of Isabetta caused Neel to have a nervous breakdown.  She was hospitalized and tried to commit suicide.  One of her more disconcerting painting is that of Isabetta from a visit when she was about six.  She is standing nude, in what we might contemporarily call a “power pose.”  Her eyes are confident to a point of almost defiance.  Whether Neel was projecting her feelings of distance from her daughter or simply capturing the child’s innate strength, we see a young girl who appears fearless and independent.

Alice Neel: Feminist Hero

Alice Neel went on to have two more children, Richard whose father was José Santiago Negron and a second boy Hartley, whose father was filmmaker, Sam Brody.  She did not marry either of these men and in fact, never obtained an official divorce from her first husband.  Neel would eventually become a feminist icon but in the 1930s-40s her work was simply controversial.  She painted a series of female nudes with from the perspective of the female gaze as opposed to the male.  Female nudes had traditionally been painted as passive, ageless, and to an extent –anonymous. Neel’s ability to represent the inner world of her subjects through line and color gave the viewer a sense of the woman’s identity.  Currently, we see this as honest and authentic representation, but at the time these portraits challenged a woman’s conventional role and assumptions about femininity.

Eventually, Alice Neel settled on the Upper West Side where she began to experience positive recognition and celebration for her work. The women’s movement in particular, brought her attention and fame.  Neel was asked to paint feminist activist Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics, for a Time magazine cover.  Although Millett declined to sit for Neel, Neel painted the portrait from a photograph for the cover. She went on to exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Harold Reed Gallery.  In 1979, President Carter presented her with a National Women’s Caucus for Art Award for outstanding achievement. At the time of her death in 1984, she was experiencing the height of her career success.

The Joy of Connection

Neel’s work reminds us that every human story has depth and richness. She challenges and invites us to learn about people, to make a connection. After viewing these images, do not be surprised if you feel like having a conversation with a stranger. In a post-Covid world, Alice Neel’s work is the nudge towards humanity that we all need.

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