Alice Neel - Biography and Legacy
Merion Square, Pennsylvania
New York, NY
Biography of Alice Neel
Alice Hartley Neel was born into a colorful American family. Her father, George Washington Neel, was an accountant with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and hailed from a clan of steamship owners and opera singers. Her mother, Alice Concross Hartley, was a descendant of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Young Alice was the fourth of five children, with three brothers and a sister. Her oldest brother, Hartley, died of diphtheria shortly after she was born. He was only eight years old. Several months later, Neel's family moved to the small town of Colwyn, a short distance from Philadelphia, where she attended primary school and high school.
After graduating from high school in 1918, Neel took the Civil Service exam and accepted a secretarial job with the Army to help support her family. She worked there for three years while pursuing her passion for art, taking evening classes at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia. Neel's parents did not understand her professional ambitions. "I don't know what you expect to do in the world," her mother once told her, "you're only a girl."
With the help of scholarships and her own savings from her work as a secretary, Neel enrolled as a student in 1921 at the Fine Arts program at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. There, she studied landscape painting under Henry Snell, and life drawing and portraiture with Rae Sloan Bredin. A brilliant student, Neel earned several awards for her portraits - which would remain her life-long focus. In 1924, she attended a summer program organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the picturesque village of Chester Springs. There, she met and fell in love with a wealthy Cuban in the program, Carlos Enríquez.
Marriage to Enríquez marked the beginning of a devastating period in Neel's life. The couple married in Colwyn in June 1925 and several months later, they moved to Havana. The following year she had her first exhibition and gave birth to her first child, Santillana, who died while still an infant from diphtheria- the same disease that had claimed Neel's older brother. The couple moved back and forth between Cuba and the US, eventually settling on Manhattan's Upper West Side. They had another daughter, Isabetta, in November 1928, and planned to move to Paris in 1930. Instead, Enríquez moved suddenly and unexpectedly to Paris, taking Isabetta with him and leaving the toddler with his family in Europe. Neel suffered a nervous breakdown over the course of the following months, was briefly hospitalized, and later went to find Enríquez. When it was clear that the marriage was unsalvageable, Neel attempted suicide using the oven in her parents' kitchen, and was hospitalized again. Neel never divorced, but remained estranged from her husband, and would see her daughter only on rare occasions for the rest of her life.
Neel continued to live and work in New York City, and in 1933, received funding from the Public Works of America Project (one of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiatives enacted under President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal). During the depression, Neel became an activist for left-wing political causes. The WPA supported her painting - albeit with periodic interruptions in her funding - until 1943, after which she struggled to make ends meet for the rest of the decade. She participated in only one exhibition, and had difficulty finding a market for her work. In 1944, she even bought back some of her own paintings that were sold to a Long Island junk dealer for four cents a pound (along with other unwanted WPA works).
Neel never remarried, but had a number of romantic relationships beginning in the 1930s. In 1939 she had another child, Richard, with the nightclub singer Jose Santiago Negron. The most enduring of these relationships, lasting over two decades, was with the photographer and documentary filmmaker Sam Brody. Brody and Neel had another son, Hartley, in 1941, whom they raised along with Richard. In general, Neel's partners were unsupportive of her creative endeavors, and one was actively destructive: Kenneth Doolittle destroyed three hundred of her drawings and fifty oil paintings in a jealous rage when their relationship turned sour.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Neel saw the rise of Abstract Expressionism in New York, but remained steadfastly committed to representational work. She was interested in real people - flaws and all - not just bohemians and fellow artists. Her portraits from the 1950s strove to capture the character of her friends and neighbors in New York's Spanish Harlem in careful, expressionistic detail. This dimension of her work reflects the artist's commitment to left-leaning causes. The prominent communist writer Mike Gold recognized the value in the diversity of her human subjects - showing a broad slice of life in New York, and helped organize several exhibitions of Neel's work.
Some thirty years into her career, Neel finally began to receive the recognition she had long deserved. According to the artist, her work "began to be understood in the late 1950s, before that it was too tough for people." Though she remained resolute about the kind of art she wanted to make, she was always open to new ideas. In 1959, she appeared alongside Allen Ginsberg and Larry Rivers in the Beat film Pull My Daisy, based on a play written by Jack Kerouac. In the spring of 1960, she painted the poet, art critic, and MoMa curator Frank O'Hara over the course of five sittings, and produced two portraits, one of which was flattering, and the other shockingly critical. The paintings were well received, attracting the attention of ARTnews and the New York Times. This marked the beginning of Neel's commercial success.
Toward the end of the 1960s, the momentum of the women's rights movement led to increased interest in Neel's work. Neel was a feminist icon, but the enduring pragmatism with which she had always approached her professional life, with and without the support of feminists, is illustrated by the following example: In 1970, she was commissioned to paint the younger feminist activist Kate Millett for the cover of Time. Millett refused to sit for the portrait (her problem was not with Neel, but with Time magazine, a mainstream publication she did not support). Unfazed by this act of protest, Neel went ahead and painted her anyway, based on a scowling photograph. The portrait completed the assignment, and did justice to the anti-establishment activist's rage (which must have been considerable when she saw her portrait appear on the cover of Time).
Largely due to feminist intervention in the history of art, by the 1970s, Neel was widely recognized as a major American artist. She was the subject of a major retrospective at the Whitney in 1974. President Carter presented her with an award for her contributions as a woman in art in 1979. She traveled to Moscow in 1981 for a major exhibition of her work, and was honored by New York's Mayor Ed Koch in 1982. She delivered lectures and participated in panel discussions at a number of prominent museums, art schools, and universities, and actively protested the Vietnam War. Her son Hartley and his wife constructed a studio on their property in rural Vermont for Neel to use during her frequent visits, and her personal life continued to be full. She became a grandmother several times over, and her former lover, John Rothschild, moved into her guest room.
While her creative energies seemed limitless, Neel fainted several times in 1980 and was given a pacemaker. During a routine appointment to check the device, doctors discovered advanced, inoperable colon cancer. Despite failing health, she continued to paint and visit Vermont to spend time with her children and grandchildren. In 1984, she appeared on the Tonight Show and insisted that the host, Johnny Carson, come to visit her and sit for a portrait. She died the same year at her New York apartment, surrounded by family and friends. Allen Ginsberg composed and read an original poem for her in a memorial service at the Whitney. She was among the few women artists of her generation who lived to see a major retrospective of her work. Alice Neel is buried near her studio in Vermont.
The Legacy of Alice Neel
Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch and Kathe Kollwitz come to mind as stylistic precursors for Neel's interest in portraying psychic depth that goes beneath the surface. In a world where painted portraits were still primarily for the upper class, Neel's insistence on representing a broad cross-section of the American public, from a range of racial, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds was firmly rooted in her political convictions, and recalls the staunch radicalism of Diego Rivera and American artists of the Harlem Renaissance from Aaron Douglas to Archibald Motley. Her interest in the details of time and place aligns her with documentary photographers like Gordon Parks, Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange, and Helen Levitt, all of whom worked for the WPA at roughly the same time as Neel.
Although rarely aligned with Neo-Expressionism, Neel's return to the figure, emotive brushwork, and penetrating insight into human psychology anticipate the movement several decades ahead of its time. Neel's broad impact on the art of today is evident in the work of major portraitists from Chuck Close to Lucian Freud. Elizabeth Peyton's eclectic, egalitarian focus on a broad cross-section of society, and South African artist Marlene Dumas's unflinching view of political and social issues are strongly indebted to Neel. Countless other painters have learned valuable lessons from her work.
Finally, Neel's life-long project to study humanity by means of closely examining the broadest array of subjects informs photographers and documentarians in the age of the internet. Her interest in the human condition of New Yorkers wherever she might find them is closely aligned with the ongoing project Humans of New York (HONY).