Alice Neel: Painted Truths
March 21 - June 13, 2010
Wall panel text from the exhibition
- VINYL WALL TITLE AND INTRODUCTORY TEXT
- Alice Neel: Painted Truths
- Because portraiture was her primary genre Alice Neel
(1900-1984) faced steep odds in her quest to have her work exhibited and
appreciated. By the early 20th century, advances in photography had rendered
painted portraiture practically obsolete, the discredited province of conservative
academic painters who almost invariably worked on commission, and therefore
were in the business of flattering their sitters. The genre was in such
disrepute that Neel refused to use the term "portraits" to describe
her paintings, identifying them instead as "pictures of people."
- Neel almost never worked on commission, so was under
no obligation to produce likenesses that ennobled her sitters or ignored
their abnormalities. Unlike almost all other socially and politically engaged
painters of her generation, she concentrated on the specific. Her contemporaries
painted types -- the shop girl, the immigrant, the political martyr --
so their works now seems dated and lifeless. But Neel focused on the distinctive
individuality of each of her sitters, creating portraits that vibrate with
energy and seem timeless today.
- When Abstract Expressionism dominated America's artistic
discourse in the 1940s and 1950s, Neel's work fell even further out of
favor. Living as a single mother in Spanish Harlem from 1938 to 1962, she
mounted only six widely spaced solo shows during those 24 years. Recognition
came late in life, after she moved to the West Side and began to paint
influential people in the art world.
- Despite years of critical neglect and late-found fame,
Alice Neel ignored prevailing artistic fashions. She painted the truth
as she saw it, leaving a rich visual history of her era.
- Allegory has long been a favored tool of artists, writers,
and filmmakers to communicate social and political opinions. Alice Neel
admired such masterpieces of allegory as the novels of Honoré de
Balzac and Émile Zola; the films of Charlie Chaplin and Fritz Lang;
the plays of Berthold Brecht; and the paintings and murals of the Mexican
artists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco that were renowned
throughout the New York art community in the 1920s and 1930s.
- Neel employed allegory early in her career not only to
declare her compassion for New York City's poor and her identification
with leaders of the labor movement, but also to explore her grief over
the death of one daughter and the loss of another to the custody of her
husband's family. In Symbols (Doll and Apple), she meditated on
women's status in a male-dominated world through religious and secular
- The Essential Portrait
- Alice Neel progressed through three distinct periods
in her portraiture, but the progress was far from linear. The periods often
overlap, so the distinction is stylistic rather than strictly chronological.
Whereas her early paintings of the late 1920s and early 1930s often contain
overt symbolism, and her works from the late 1950s until her death employ
unpainted areas of canvas and figural relationships to comment on the psychology
of the sitters, the works in Neel's middle period -- here defined as "the
essential portraits" -- are characterized by fully worked backgrounds
and an intense concentration on the sitter.
- Neel came closest to traditionally realistic portraiture
in the works of this middle period, having abandoned the sometimes surrealistic
elements of her earlier paintings, but not yet allowing herself the expressionistic
freedom of her late, psychologically probing images.
- The Psychological Portrait
- Alice Neel's most interesting sitter was almost certainly
Andy Warhol because, although both artists specialized in portraiture,
they approached the genre from completely opposite philosophical stances.
Warhol, who worked from photographs, often of people whom he had never
met, was interested only in the personas that his subjects had constructed;
he never tried to penetrate the facade. Neel, however, saw herself as a
psychiatrist, recording her subjects' ever-changing emotions in oil paint.
- Unlike photographs, Neel's late portraits do not capture
a moment in time. They record her impressions and perceptions of each subject
as the sittings evolved, so they exist in a continuous artistic present.
By identifying and exaggerating her sitter's idiosyncrasies, Neel arrived
at psychological essences that transcend mere physical likenesses.
- More than any other aspect of her work, Neel's cityscapes
fit neatly into three distinct categories: the Greenwich Village Years
(193238), the Spanish Harlem period (1938-62), and her final years
on the Upper West Side (196284). The Greenwich Village pictures, many
painted for the New Deal PWAP (Public Works of Art Project), deal with
life on the street, reflecting the artist's engagement with the community.
She would sketch the scene on the street, writing the names of the colors
in the contours, and then create the painting in her studio.
- As a single mother raising two boys, Neel produced cityscapes
in her Spanish Harlem period that exude a sense of isolation and entrapment,
conveying an intimate view of tenement life as seen from within. In the
Upper West Side paintings, the space becomes deeper, less claustrophobic,
and the palette lightens in the abundant sunlight from her north-facing
windows and the reflected light from the white-painted building opposite
- Although she drew on a few precedents like the nudes
of Paul Cézanne and Paula Modersohn-Becker, Alice Neel essentially
invented the nude portrait. The nude had been almost exclusively the province
of male artists who generally worked from professional models. Men tend
to idealize the nude, both male and female, depicting a fantasized type
rather that a particular human being. Neel's nudes are specific people
who happen not to be wearing clothes. Rather than idealizing, she often
exaggerated the imperfections that she observed. The opposite of pinups,
her nudes' bodies are overflowing and uncontained, sagging, wrinkled, and
- Neel had to remove Joe Gould from the 1934 Washington
Square Outdoor Exhibition in response to complaints of obscenity. As late
as 1975, this satirical male nude was hung in a janitor's closet during
a retrospective of Neel's work. No other artist has depicted the pregnant
nude with the unsentimental, dispassionate accuracy of Alice Neel.
- Parents and Children
- Neel's intense engagement with the subject of parents
and children went through two periods: first when she was tending to her
four children, two of whom she reared to maturity, and then when her sons
began to have children of their own. Between these periods, she occasionally
painted mothers and children who were her neighbors in Spanish Harlem.
The first period was clouded by the loss of her two daughters -- Santillana
to diphtheria, and Isabetta to her husband's family in Havana. In Hartley
on the Rocking Horse, Neel depicted the delicate balance of being a
single mother and a practicing artist.
- In the second phase, Neel became the dispassionate observer
rather than the uneasy participant. Unlike such childless artists as Mary
Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, she never sentimentalized the often messy facts
of motherhood. The children she painted were imperfect and the parents
unsure how to cope.
- The Detached Gaze
- In her portraits of her male children, Neel generally
treated them with sympathy, repressing her penchant for the grotesque and
representing a strong feeling of empathy. Her depictions of Richard in
1945 and Hartley in 1966 -- shown in other sections of this exhibition
-- render their insecurities and anxieties as though Neel were feeling
them herself. The sense of bonding present in Neel's portraits of her sons
is not evident in other family portraits.
- In Isabetta (1934/35), Neel's detachment from
her estranged daughter is obvious. Rather than sentimentalizing this rare
visit, she presents its discomfort. Forty years later, she repeated the
pose with her first granddaughter in Olivia in Red Hat. It is a
confrontational painting, but not to the same degree as Isabetta because
of its lack of nudity. Neel shows little empathy for another granddaughter
in Victoria and the Cat, gleefully zooming in on Victoria's vulnerability
and youthful gawkiness.
- Old Age
- Alice Neel did not begin painting older sitters until
she herself was middle-aged. The occasion was the death of her father in
1946, when she painted a memory portrait of him in his casket. Perhaps
she regretted never having painted her father in life, for paintings of
older subjects became a regular feature of her practice in the latter half
of her career, as her friends and family -- and indeed, the artist -- began
to feel the effects of time.
- Although Max White was only 55 when Neel painted her
third portrait of him in 1961, crippling arthritis made him appear much
older. His likeness in "The Essential Portrait" section shows
a man exuding vigor, but here he slumps into his chair, an invalid. The
elfin 74-year-old twins in The Soyer Brothers barely make an indentation
on Neel's daybed. While Moses engages the artist, Raphael reflects in private.
- Portraits from Memory
- Alice Neel preferred to paint directly from the sitter,
never using photographs, except in some portraits commissioned late in
her life, when the subject was unavailable or unwilling to pose. Throughout
her career, however, she created portraits from memory either of chance
encounters or of incidents that she could not re-create in her studio.
- Neel, who prided herself on her visual memory, was influenced
by the writings of Robert Henri, the leading theorist of the Eight, also
known as the Ashcan School. In his book The Art Spirit, which Neel
owned and recommended to other artists, Henri wrote that, in the ideal
academy, students would study the model in one room, but paint or draw
the subject in a different one. He believed that the artists had to capture
the essence of the subject and lock it into their memories, because nothing
For biographical information on certain
artists referenced above please see America's
Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists
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