Heritage

Alice Neel’s Women

Posted by: National Museum of Women in the Arts

The following article appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of Women in the Arts

Alice Neel (1900-84) was a hero to a generation of women artists who, in the 1960s and 1970s, were joining forces with feminist art historians and critics to assert their place in the contemporary art world and in the history of art. As one of the great American portrait painters of the twentieth century, Neel exemplified to them the committed artist who had created a distinguished body of work despite personal, economic, and cultural obstacles.

Neel grew up in the small town of Colwyn, Pennsylvania, the fourth of five children born to a strong-willed mother and a somewhat emotionally distant father. After high school and three years as a clerk for the Army Air Corps, she enrolled in classes at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art and Design). She subsequently explained, ‘I didn’t want to go to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts because I didn’t want to be taught Impressionism. … I didn’t see life as a Picnic on the Grass. I wasn’t happy like Renoir.’ Upon graduating in 1925, she married Carlos Enriquez de Gomez, a fellow artist from a wealthy Cuban family, whom she met the previous year at the Chester Springs summer art school. The two lived briefly in Havana before moving to New York City in 1927. Neel and her husband had two daughters, Santillana, who died of diphtheria in 1927, and Isabetta, who was taken by her father to live in Cuba after the marriage disintegrated in 1930. The following years were marked by periods of grief and nervous collapse; rocky relationships with men; and the birth of two sons, Richard in 1939 and Hartley in 1942.

Although Neel’s personal life was tumultuous, she was nevertheless single-minded in her attempt to establish herself professionally. During the 1930s, she participated in group exhibitions, had her first one-person show, and supported herself by working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Still, it was not until the late 1960s that Neel began to exhibit on a regular basis. After her first major exhibition at the Whitney in 1974 came numerous solo and group exhibitions, and her work was featured in various periodicals and monographs throughout this and subsequent decades. Neel was the recipient of several awards, including an honorary doctoral degree from the Moore College of Art and Design. The celebrity status she acquired late in her life was marked by two appearances in 1984 on the Johnny Carson show.

Throughout her career, Neel painted landscapes, urban vistas, and still lifes, but portraiture anchored her art. Calling herself a ‘collector of souls,’ she explored the human comedy by depicting a vast array of men, women, children, and couples. Most of those Neel painted were her friends, but she was also capable of persuading strangers, like Mary Shoemaker, to sit for her. Neel was drawn to her subjects by the way their outward attributes revealed aspects of their inner self and the times in which they lived. ‘I usually know why people look the way they look,’ Neel told one interviewer. For example, the red hat and black gloves in Neel’s portrait of Shoemaker reveal a woman who, though living amid the social change of the 1960s, remains bound by outdated standards of propriety.

Rarely, until late in life, did Neel receive commissions. Despite this economic hardship, she found the ability to choose whom and what she painted ‘very liberating.’ As she candidly admitted, ‘The minute I sat in front of a canvas, I was happy. Because it was a world, and I could do as I liked in it.’

Neel often said that all art is history. In her history and in her art, men played a major role. Alice Neel loved the company of men, as friends, as colleagues, as neighbors, and as lovers, and she enjoyed painting them. But Neel’s paintings of women provide insight into the artist herself. The exhibition Alice Neel’s Women not only presents a selection of the artist’s intriguing circle of female friends and family, it also serves as a chronicle of Neel’s own conflicts and struggles and as a diary of her personal and artistic growth.

At the time of Neel’s first exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art in 1974, Curator Elke Solomon acutely observed, ‘It is precisely Neel’s ability to tell something both of herself and her sitter that distinguishes her as a portraitist within the academic tradition. To a lesser extent than Gertrude Stein, though similarly, Neel’s biographies are autobiographical.’ Neel painted primarily from life because, as she recognized, ‘I get something from the other person.’ She is known for her ability to capture the essence of an individual both physically and psychologically. Gesture, posture, assured draftsmanship, and an eye for color are at the heart of her interpretive skills.

This is true throughout her career, whether in the early portrait of Mildred Oldden, her mid-career nude portrait of Pat Ladew, or her later double portrait of art historian Linda Nochlin and her daughter Daisy. But if there are elements of continuity in her work, there are also elements of change. One can see, for instance, that her manipulation of paint evolved over time. A taste for a bright, intense palette is almost always seen in her work, but in the early portraits, she tends to fill in the background. In the later portraits, she often sets her subject against a broad, barely articulated background. This ‘open’ space creates a sense of freedom and spontaneity that permeates much of the work of the last two decades of her life.

On the whole, Neel’s portraits of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s are smaller than those done after 1960. This reflects the taste of the times for more domestically scaled paintings, Neel’s financial resources, and the confined space in which she worked. The greater scale of her portraits in her last decades is owed to a new and larger apartment, financial support from the art world, and a psychological ebullience (also evident in her brushwork) that was closely tied to her growing reputation as a significant artist. Neel’s portraits reveal that she had assimilated a variety of art historical conventions. The compositional centrality of many early mother-and-child portraits alludes to a Renaissance pictorial tradition. The portraits of Ethel Ashton and Bessie Boris make reference to the shallow space and distorted forms of cubism; the darkly outlined figure of Dick Bagly’s girlfriend suggests the influence of German expressionism; while the painterly background of the portrait of Dore Ashton functions as an allusion to abstract expressionism.

Perhaps Neel’s most audacious reinterpretation of a painting tradition is her rendering of the female nude. When she depicted Sue Seely as a reclining nude she, like Edouard Manet in his famous 1863 Olympia, eschewed a classical, idealized figure, but unlike Manet she brings the viewer into a more immediate and personal relationship with the sitter by eliminating spatial barriers. Neel’s other extensions of the iconography of this subject matter are the double portrait of Nadya and Nona, the various pregnant nudes she painted throughout her career, and her own self-portrait.

In many ways, Neel’s great self-portrait, which she began in 1975 and completed in the 1980s, sums up her approach to portraiture. As she gazes intently into an unseen mirror with what art critic John Perreault deemed her ‘brilliant, mischievous eyes,’ her full-length form seated before the easel recalls the centuries-old tradition of artists painting themselves. At the same time, her self-portrait ignores convention by virtue of the fact that Neel is nude. Her nakedness serves as a metaphor for her candor. The angle of the small sofa on which she sits and her upraised foot suggest some tension in the moment, despite the artist’s calm facial demeanor. Neel’s unflinching realism captures a body that does not conform to notions of feminine beauty—her breasts sag, her thighs are ample, and her distended stomach has lost its tone. Her self does not escape the same clinical analysis that she gave to others. Without apology, she presents herself as a woman who takes pride in her role as an artist, and she declares that talent and character, not transient beauty, make one interesting.

Neel was justly proud of her five-decade love affair with the objective world. Despite the avant-garde’s infatuation with abstraction in the late 1940s and 1950s, she continued to make portraits. When given credit for ‘having preserved the figure when the whole world was against it,’ she gladly accepted the honor. Neel was not entirely alone in this mission: Philip Pearlstein, Alex Katz, Andy Warhol, and Chuck Close are among the important post—World War II artists who also made (and, with the exception of Warhol, are making) portraiture a central part of their art. But their focus was and is primarily on formal issues connected with likeness; of this group, only Neel has been consistently concerned with the portrait as a psychological document.

Indeed Neel, through her unswerving passion for the figure and her crusade on its behalf, and through the creation of compelling portraits, has staked her claim to a place in the art-historical pantheon. When artists, critics, and historians began to ask in the 1970s: ‘Who are the great women painters?’ Neel provided one answer.

Carolyn Kinder Carr is deputy director and chief curator at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, and is co-curator of the exhibition Alice Neel’s Women.

Sources for the quotations by and about Neel can be found in Alice Neel: Women by Carolyn Kinder Carr, published by Rizzoli and available at www.nmwa.org.

 

Carr, Carolyn Kinder, ‘Alice Neel’s Women,’ Women in the Arts (Fall 2005): 10-14.

Images:
1. Alice Neel’s Self Portrait. Carr, ‘Alice Neel’s Women,’ 10.
2. Alice Neel’s Mary Shoemaker. Carr, ‘Alice Neel’s Women,’ 12.
3. Alice Neel’s Bessie Boris. Carr, ‘Alice Neel’s Women,’ 13.
4. Alice Neel’s Linda Nochlin and Daisy. Carr, ‘Alice Neel’s Women,’ 14.

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