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Alice Neel Artworks

American Painter

Alice Neel Photo

Born: January 28, 1900 - Merion Square, Pennsylvania

Died: October 13, 1984 - New York, NY

Artworks by Alice Neel

The below artworks are the most important by Alice Neel - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Carlos Enríquez (1926)

This early work depicts Neel's husband, the painter Carlos Enríquez, a year after they were married. The portrait displays many of the stylistic and compositional features evident in her mature work. It is clear, however, that Neel was still evolving as an artist. The face, with its distracted features, looks past the edge of the frame, as if focused on a faraway thought. The background here is much darker and the features more idealized than in Neel's later portraits (although, after all, this was her lover). Interest in psychological depth, while evident here, would be fully mastered in her later work.

The pair met in 1924 during a summer painting course in Pennsylvania. He was expelled due to lack of participation; Neel left the program with him. Enríquez returned to Havana in the fall, but the couple carried on their romance through letters. His wealthy family disapproved of Neel and his desire to be an artist (one can only imagine what they thought of her professional ambitions).

Pat Whalen (1935)

Neel's passionate interest in left-wing politics is evident in her portrayal of Communist activist and union organizer Pat Whalen, whom she painted when she was involved with the WPA, part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Here, Whalen is portrayed as the archetypal blue-collar worker. He looks up from a copy of the Daily Worker (the official newspaper of the US communist party), his fists clenched in an expression of resolve and determination. Hallmarks of the artist's personal style are abundantly evident here: the use of flat, unmixed color, the expressive brushstroke, and particular care with the features of the sitter's face and hands that convey a deeper psychology. Neel once observed, "people are the greatest and profoundest key to an era." Here, honing in on a single subject, she articulates the intensity of a struggle that affected millions of Americans in the 1930s and beyond: the struggle for worker's rights.

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Dominican Boys on 108th Street (1955)

Neel moved from Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem in 1938. The Village, she felt, was too full of pretentious bohemians. She moved in with the Puerto Rican musician Jose Santiago and began to paint many portraits of friends and neighbors. The two boys here are not like the cherubic innocents seen in many traditional portraits of children. They are nattily dressed like men, not boys, and come across as tough and streetwise. While they are Hispanic, Neel neither plays down nor stereotypes this element. Unlike many of Neel's other portraits, in which backgrounds are typically minimal, the details of the urban landscape are clearly rendered here. Neighborhood residents linger and chat on a stoop, advertising posters peel off the wall of a corner shop, and a green graffiti tag reading 'Felipe' is clearly visible. In this respect, many of her paintings from Spanish Harlem recall the aesthetics of American documentary photographers such as Berenice Abbott and Dorothea Lange. While many portraits (including Neel's) have a universal or timeless quality to them, these two boys are distinctly of a specific time and place.

Hartley (1965)

Some of Neel's most impactful paintings focus on the people closest to her. This portrait of her son, Hartley, is one of the most famous. Though there is strength and confidence in his pose, with arms and legs akimbo, there is also vulnerability, as well as a weary hardness in Hartley's features. He seems to be preoccupied, or lost in thought, as evidenced by the fact that his gaze avoids that of the viewer. As in many of her portraits, the periphery of the frame is unfinished. This focuses our attention on the central details of the image, for example, the rendering of the shadows on his shirt and pants, which lend them an almost photorealistic quality, and the bold, dark outlines of the body and face. Hartley was Neel's son with the documentary filmmaker Sam Brody, a difficult and sometimes physically abusive man. Struggling to support her family, Neel depended on welfare - and even shoplifted occasionally - to make ends meet. A firsthand knowledge of hard times radiates through Hartley's stern expression, but the restless energy in his lanky form suggests possibility, as opposed to resignation. Neel's expert brushwork, here at its best, lends an immediacy to the figure that makes it look as if it might get up and walk. Hartley's son, Andrew, went on to produce a documentary film about his grandmother in 2007.

Andy Warhol (1970)

One of Neel's best-known works, this portrait of the legendary figure contrasts dramatically with the glamorous image Warhol cultivated for himself. His eyes are closed, suggesting sadness, and discomfort with being looked at (Warhol was famously sensitive about his looks). Without the spiky white wig, sunglasses, and black turtleneck shirt, and without the admirers, celebrities, and hangers-on, he appears vulnerable and old. In 1968, two years before the famous Pop icon sat for this painting, he was shot three times (with a gun) by Valerie Solanus after refusing to produce her play. Alone and shirtless, against a spare background that emphasizes his isolation, Warhol's pink flesh contrasts with the green shadows on his face and body. Large scars across his torso, with the corset he wore to support his damaged abdominal muscles clearly visible, reveal the enduring evidence of that attempt on his life. Here, Warhol's public persona as an immortal icon of cool falls away and he is revealed as a fragile human being. Evidence of Neel's mastery as a portraitist, the work rejects the superficial ways in which we perform identity and assess power, and suggests an alternate model for gaging the human condition: empathy.

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Self Portrait (1980)

Neel was one of the first (if not the first) octogenarian woman to exhibit a portrait of herself as a nude. Neel began the self-portrait in her mid-seventies, abandoned it, and returned to it five years later when she was invited to take part in an exhibition of self-portraits at the Harold Reed Gallery in New York in 1980. It depicts Neel in the nude, sitting on a striped chair in her studio. The details of the floor and walls give way to negative space after forming a kind of halo around her. White hair, wrinkles, and sagging stomach (signs aging women are taught to conceal or hide) appear matter-of-factly at the center of the work. She is the clear focus of the painting. She wears only her glasses, and holds a paintbrush in one hand and a cloth in the other. Her steady gaze meets ours, and suggests self-acceptance, even confidence. While of course the female nude is one of the most popular subjects in art, scenes of older nude women as anything but the subject of ridicule are exceedingly rare. In this path-breaking self-portrait, Neel breaks a cardinal rule in Western art, wearing the evidence of her eighty years without shame and as a truly radical artist, at the very top of her game.

Related Artists and Major Works

Paul-Ferdinand Gachet (1890)

Paul-Ferdinand Gachet (1890)

Artist: Vincent van Gogh (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Dr. Gachet was the homeopathic physician that treated Van Gogh after he was released from Saint-Remy. In the doctor, the artist found a personal connection, writing to his sister, "I have found a true friend in Dr. Gachet, something like another brother, so much do we resemble each other physically and also mentally." Van Gogh depicts Gachet seated at a red table, with two yellow books and foxglove in a vase near his elbow. The doctor gazes past the viewer, his eyes communicating a sense of inner sadness that reflects not only the doctor's state of mind, but Van Gogh's as well. Van Gogh focused the viewer's attention on the depiction of the doctor's expression by surrounding his face with the subtly varied blues of his jacket and the hills of the background. Van Gogh wrote to Gauguin that he desired to create a truly modern portrait, one that captured the "the heartbroken expression of our time." Rendering Gachet's expression through a blend of melancholy and gentility, Van Gogh created a portrait that has resonated with viewers since its creation. A recent owner, Ryoei Saito, even claimed he planned to have the painting cremated with him after his death, as he was so moved by the image. The intensity of emotion that Van Gogh poured into each brushstroke is what has made his work so compelling to viewers over the decades, inspiring countless artists and individuals.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936)

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936)

Artist: Dorothea Lange (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Probably the most famous of Lange's photographs, the description she wrote of her encounter with Florence Owens Thompson reveals that it left a deep impression on her. "I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tyres from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me... I knew that I had recorded the essence of my assignment." The indescribably poignant expression on Thompson's face stands out from between the bowed heads of her sons, whose presence reveals the nature of her concerns.

Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers (1934)

Movement: Social Realism (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Aaron Douglas (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

A member of the Communist Party, this is Douglas's fourth panel from a series covering the transition between human slavery and modern industrial enslavement; the final, fifth panel was to show Karl Marx amongst African-American workers leading them to a better proletarian future. At the work's apex, a saxophonist stands triumphantly with his instrument held high above his head, far above the green grasping hands that would draw him back into slavery. Yet his triumph is fleeting, as the industrial cog on which he stands will carry him back into the depths of the city and society; industrialism and mechanization are not friends of the American worker. Beyond the man's reach, in the far distance, stands the Statue of Liberty symbolizing the unfulfilled promises of universal freedom. Song of the Towers showcases Douglas's signature style of concentric, radiating circles that are punctured by bold silhouetted figures.

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