ARLES, France — Alice Neel is a great American painter. What’s that you say? You are unfamiliar with her work? You are probably not alone. As good as she is, Neel doesn’t have the profile of Georgia O’Keeffe when it comes to name recognition (maybe that has something to do with O’Keefe’s affiliation with Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams, but let’s not bring questions of the feminism and patriarchal oppression into it).
Neel’s superb portraiture chronicled the 20th century, and the way she lived her life struck a blow as a proto-feminist. Born in 1900 into a strait-laced middle-class family, her mother once told her, “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, you’re only a girl.” Neel studied art at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. She married Carlos Enriquez, a Cuban painter, and moved to Havana in 1925, where she became part of the avant garde.
The couple moved to New York where her daughter, Santillana, died of diphtheria, a trauma that influenced Neel’s life-long exploration of mothers, daughters, families and loss. When Carlos took their new daughter Isabetta and returned to Cuba, Need had a severe breakdown and attempted suicide and was placed in Philadelphia General Hospital. “Even in the insane asylum, she painted. Alice loved a wretch. She loved the wretch in the hero and the hero in the wretch. She saw that in all of us, I think,” her daughter-in-law Ginny Neel wrote.
In the 1930s, she moved to Greenwich Village. She also was paid to paint urban scenes for the government-run Works Progress Administration. During this time she met and painted Community party sympathizers, of which she was one. She moved to Spanish Harlem in 1938. One of her best paintings of this period was her portrait of the poet and novelist Kenneth Fearing. The image shows the writer in his natural habitat, a bar, surrounded by characters from his work. He is smiling and alive, despite the ashen hues of a night owl.
In the 1960s she lived in New York’s Upper West Side, where she began to paint artists and gallerists, including Andy Warhol and his acolytes. With these paintings, and her portraits of friends and family, she finally gained recognition. The American Academy and the Institute of Arts and Letters elected Neel in 1976 and in 1979, President Jimmy Carter presented her with a National Women’s Caucus for Art award for outstanding achievement. She died in 1984 of colon cancer.
The comprehensive retrospective at the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles was an absolute delight. To see her work though the years really opened up her view of the world, casting a light on the shifting attitudes toward gender and ethnicity, reflecting American society.
Rejecting the modernism of abstraction, Neel’s searingly insightful portraits are stunningly mesmerizing. They draw the viewer in, with their slightly twisted and distorted poses. The paintings are often deliberately “unfinished,” with Neel leaving parts of the canvas uncovered and background merely sketched in. The flesh of the later portraits has an other-worldly sheen, especially noticeable in her 1970 post-shooting portrait of Warhol.
The sometimes expressionless stares connect the viewer to the subjects, but they also seem to see into our souls as much as we can see into theirs.
Alice Neel deserves to take her place among the important — man or woman — 20th-century American artists.