Alice Neel: Painted Truths

March 21 - June 13, 2010

 



 

Art object labels from the exhibition

 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Futility of Effort
1930
Oil on canvas
Collection of Anne McNamara and Errol Mitlyng, Dallas, Texas
 
Alice Neel painted the nearly monochromatic Futility of Effort after the death of her first daughter, Santillana, and while enduring the loss of custody of her second daughter, Isabetta. Far from being a portrait, the image captures Neel's grief by referencing an article she read about a child who was strangled by crawling through bedposts as the mother was ironing. Identifying with the story, Neel's allegorical image transforms the innocent child into a martyr.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Symbols (Doll and Apple)
c. 1933
Oil on canvas
Collection of Barbara Lee, Cambridge, Massachusetts
 
Alice Neel continued to mourn the loss of her daughters and to process her own mental breakdown and suicide attempts in the overtly symbolic painting Symbols (Doll and Apple). Dominated by an emaciated, lifeless doll, the scene combines Latin American images of private devotion and Christian icons. Neel's painting may also be read as a meditation on the status of women in a male-dominated world.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Kenneth Fearing
1935
Oil on canvas
 
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Hartley S. Neel and Richard Neel, 1988
 
Considered one of the leading poets of his generation, Kenneth Fearing wrote about the suffering of the laboring class during the Depression. Surrounded by the snippets of society about which he wrote, Fearing is illuminated by a single lightbulb, a symbol of enlightenment and modernism. The bleeding skeleton in his heart implies that, despite his characteristic deadpan verse, he sympathizes with humanity as his heart literally bleeds for the sorrows of the world.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Pat Whalen
1935
Oil on canvas with paper element collaged onto surface
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, gift of Dr. Hartley Neel, 81.12
 
Pat Whalen, a fervent Communist, was a union organizer for the longshoreman of Baltimore. Neel, who was also lifelong sympathizer of leftist causes and an on-and-off again Communist Party member, depicts Whalen as a secular saint. His attribute, a copy of the Daily Worker, the organ of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), lies beneath his large fists, which identify Whalen as both a laborer and fighter.
[66 words]
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Man with Rose
1936
Oil on canvas
Private collection
 
The identity of the sitter in Man with Rose is unknown, and thus the meaning of the still-life vignette, rose, and stick drawing of the hanged man remain unclear. When Alice Neel created this portrait, she lived in downtown New York and associated with numerous poets and journalists. This fact, along with the aforementioned symbols and the sitter's formal attire, strongly suggest the subject is a writer.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
José
1936
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Alice Neel met José Negron, a musician and nightclub singer, in 1935. She gave birth to their son, Richard, in September 1939, but José abandoned Neel and their infant son three months later for another woman. He eventually became an Episcopal priest and taught theology in Mexico. In this portrait, Neel portrays her subject like a Gothic wood carving set against a flamelike crimson background, as if a martyr at the stake, or a sinner in hellfire.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
T.B. Harlem
1940
Oil on canvas
National Museum of Women in the Arts, gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay, 1983.24
 
The saintly patient in T.B. Harlem is Carlos Negron, the bother of Alice Neel's companion, José Negron, from 1935 to 1939. Painted after José left Neel, the work attests to Neel's affectionate relationship with his family. Before the development of penicillin, doctors treated tuberculosis-related collapsed lungs by removing some of the patient's ribs. Influenced by the styles of El Greco and Goya, Neel portrays Carlos's battered body as an elegy to the suffering of the poor.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Ed Meschi
1933
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
The dark tones in this portrait of Ed Meschi enhance the intense gray color of his eyes, the focal point of the painting. Meschi's identity remains a mystery, and the painting's neutral space and the sitter's nondescript clothing offer no clues to his social class or occupation. However, in Meschi's serpentine pose and hypnotic eyes, Neel endows the sitter with a menacing, snakelike quality.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Max White
1935
Oil on linen
Smithsonian American Art Museum, museum purchase
 
The writer Max White sat for Alice Neel on three occasions: in 1935, 1939, and 1961. In her first depiction of White, Neel employed a straightforward style of portraiture by presenting White almost directly facing the viewer. His masculine features are softened by the sensuous rendering of his lips, while his asymmetrical eyes and shoulders give the figure an electrical charge.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Elenka
1936
Oil on canvas
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Richard Neel and Hartley S. Neel, 1987 (1987.376)
 
Elenka is one of Alice Neel's most painterly and complex portraits of the 1930s and the work technically anticipates her later stylistic innovations. Despite the painting's elaborate background and the lush treatment of the sitter's blouse, the viewer is instantly drawn to Elenka's exotic face. Her auburn hair, olive complexion, and heavily outlined facial features stand out despite the fact that the right side of her face is in shadow.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Richard at Age Five
1945
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
In this unusually small portrait, Alice Neel depicts her elder son, Richard, just before his sixth birthday. She emphasizes Richard's face, especially his eyes, which she depicts as black voids to suggest a limited amount of vision; Richard suffered from poor eyesight from a young age and was registered as blind. Reminiscent of the treatment of eyes in Byzantine icon paintings, Richard's disproportionately large eyes reflect Neel's concern for her son.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Art Shields
1951
Oil on canvas
Collection of Lillian and Billy Mauer
 
This three-quarter profile portrait depicts the left-wing journalist Art Shields, who was a labor reporter for the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party USA. Shields's jewel-toned red shirt contrasts with the yellow-gold background, a direct quote of 14th-century Sienese gold-ground paintings, lending the painting a quality of otherworldliness. Neel's unflinching study of Shields portrays a noble man staring into the distance as if recalling long-ago battles.
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Psychiatrist's Wife (Elsie Rubin)
1957
Oil on canvas
Collection of Alison and John Ferring, St. Louis, Missouri
 
By identifying her sitter as an anonymous professional man's wife rather than as a person in her own right, Alice Neel rather cruelly revealed her assessment of Elsie Rubin's talent as a painter. Rubin, who had studied at the Art Students League, was a practicing artist and teacher. She supported progressive causes, particularly the burgeoning women's movement. Neel depicts her as a society woman, not as an artist.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Sam
1958
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Alice Neel's relationship with Sam Brody (1907-1987), though sporadic, was the longest romantic attachment of her life. Brody, a photographer, documentary filmmaker, and film critic, was a founder of the Workers' Film and Photo League. Their relationship began in 1940; the following year, Neel gave birth to their son, Hartley. Although the couple often battled, Neel could always rely on Brody to support her work and assure her of its importance. She painted this portrait of her prickly, recalcitrant, but brilliant companion in the last year of their liaison.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Frank O'Hara, No. 2
1960
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
When Alice Neel asked Frank O'Hara to pose for her, the request was strategic. O'Hara (1926­1966) was one of the leading poets of the nascent New York School. More important to Neel, he was also an art critic and an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art. After painting a flattering profile portrait, Neel executed this second version in one sitting. Her first conscious attempt to gain recognition from the New York art establishment went unrewarded. O'Hara never wrote about or showed Neel's work.
 
Alice Neel, Frank O'Hara (1926-1966), 1960, oil on canvas, 43 x 16 1/8 inches (86.4 x 41 cm), the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., gift of Hartley S. Neel.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Robert Smithson
1962
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of Locks Foundation
 
In one of the last paintings that she completed in her apartment in Spanish Harlem, Alice Neel portrayed Robert Smithson (1938-1973) before he had arrived at the theoretical framework that led to the ecologically inspired land art for which he is renowned today. At the time of the sitting, Smithson was a virtually unknown painter concerned with issues relating to the human body. Today, Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) in the Great Salt Lake is perhaps the best-known example of landscape sculpture.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Maynard Stone
1964
Oil on canvas
Collection of Bridgitt and Bruce Evans, Boston, Massachusetts
 
Occasionally, throughout her career, Alice Neel painted two portraits of the same sitter in rapid succession. The first version is usually more conventional, the second is generally more freely composed, expressionistic, and psychologically probing. In this second portrayal of Maynard Stone, an art history student, a table bisects the canvas, creating an asymmetrical duality between the upper and lower parts of the painting, and implying a disjuncture in the sitter's personality.
 
Alice Neel, Maynard Stone (first version), 1964, 36 x 24 inches (91.4 x 61 cm), Estate of Alice Neel.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Fuller Brush Man
1965
Oil on canvas
Collection of Diane and David Goldsmith
 
Dewald Strauss (1906-1974) was interned in Dachau after Kristallnacht, November 9­10, 1938. Through the intervention of relatives, he was allowed to immigrate to the United States in 1940. Serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he received a Purple Heart for injuries in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he became a door-to-door salesman. Alice Neel recalled: "He had to make twenty-five sales a day for Fuller Brush or he would lose his job. But he was so happy to be in America."
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Hartley
1966
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington, gift of Arthur M. Bullowa, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1991.143.2
 
Alice Neel said of this portrait of her younger son: "Hartley was studying medicine at Tufts in Boston, and he visited me at Christmas, 1965. He told me he could not bear dissecting a corpse and that he would have to leave... He told me he couldn't see a corpse as a thing, as some of the other students could. He was twenty-five and in a trap, but finally decided to go back to Tufts."
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Dorothy Pearlstein
1969
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Dorothy Pearlstein, a former print publisher, is the wife of the figurative painter Philip Pearlstein. She remembers that Alice Neel approached her at a party or opening, attracted by the way the dark, curly lining of her sheepskin coat echoed her hair. Neel often asked people to pose for her in a particular outfit that she found striking. She was not interested in fashion per se, but as a signifier of its period.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
The Family (John Gruen, Jane Wilson and Julia)
1970
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Jane Wilson is a landscape painter. Her husband, John Gruen, now a photographer, regularly wrote art, music, and dance criticism for such publications as the New York Herald Tribune, Vogue, Artnews, and the New York Times. Julia Gruen was 12 years old at the time of this painting and a student at the School of American Ballet. She is now director of the Keith Haring Foundation.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock
1970
Oil on canvas
Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1983
 
David Bourdon (1934-1998) and Gregory Battcock (c. 1937-1980), both art critics, were well connected in the New York art world. Bourdon posed in a suit and tie, an oddly conservative costume for the man who had played a leather-clad living bedpost in Andy Warhol's unfinished film Batman-Dracula. Battcock, his domestic partner who had recently been appointed a full professor of art history at William Patterson College, chose a more informal outfit. Alice Neel portrayed the couple as fundamentally detached from each other.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Andy Warhol
1970
Oil on canvas
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, gift of Timothy Collins, 80.52
 
No two portrait painters could be more unalike than Alice Neel and Andy Warhol (1928-1987). Whereas Neel relished arriving at the sitter's inner psychological essence through repeated sittings, Warhol worked from photographs, interested only in the persona that his subject had created to present to the world. Stripped to the waist, Warhol reveals the scars of his 1968 gunshot wounds. With a severely limited palette, Neel creates a hauntingly ethereal image of an androgynous secular saint.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd
1970
Oil on canvas
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Fund, 2009.345
 
One of the most interesting of Andy Warhol's transgendered "superstars" was Jackie Curtis (1947-1985), a playwright, poet, and cabaret performer, shown here with his close friend and minder, Ritta Redd (Richard Zolla). Born John Holder, Jr., Curtis pioneered the "glam rock" look of the 1970s. Alice Neel perfectly captured the aggressive/submissive dynamic between the two friends.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Jackie Curtis as a Boy
1972
Oil on canvas
Collection of John Cheim, New York
 
In her slyly perceptive title for this painting, Alice Neel reveals the ambiguity of Jackie Curtis's gender identification. Unlike some of Warhol's transgendered performers who identified themselves as women in men's bodies, Curtis kept his sexuality fluid, reserving the prerogative to perform -- and live -- as either a man or a woman. In his song "A Walk on the Wild Side," about Warhol film personalities, Lou Reed captured this duality in the line that Jackie "thought she was James Dean for a day."
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Linda Nochlin and Daisy
1973
Oil on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Seth K. Sweetster Fund, 1983.496
 
Art Historian Linda Nochlin (born 1931) has written extensively on such nineteenth-century French Realist painters as Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, and Edgar Degas but is probably best known for an article she published in Artnews in 1971. "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" is one of the seminal texts in the study of art history from a feminist viewpoint. Nochlin was teaching at Vassar College when Alice Neel asked her to pose with her younger daughter, Daisy Pommer, who is now a librarian and archivist for a dance foundation.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
The De Vegh Twins
1975
Oil on canvas
Private collection, Washington, D.C.
 
Hungarian-born Geza De Vegh (1905-1989) owned the Old Mill Association, which he operated as an art school and gallery in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, near Alice Neel's summer house in Spring Lake. Not only did Neel exhibit at the Old Mill Gallery, but she also entrusted some of the paintings that Kenneth Doolittle had slashed in 1934 to De Vegh for restoration in 1957. She painted Geza's Wife in 1964 and the couple's twin daughters, Suzanne and Antonia, 11 years later.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian
1978
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Geoffrey Hendricks (born 1931), a longtime member of Fluxus, a Dada-inspired, loosely constructed international art movement, is a painter and a performance and installation artist. Brian Buczak (1954-1987) had just finished his undergraduate degree in studio art when he met Hendricks. Alice Neel met the two artists at Rutgers University, where Hendricks (on right) taught. This is one of her rare portraits of a happy couple. After Buczak's untimely death, Hendricks commissioned Philip Glass to compose String Quartet #4 "Buczak" in his memory.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Ginny
1984
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
In Ginny, her last great portrait, Alice Neel upended her usual practice of situating her subjects in nonspecific interiors by seating Ginny in the near foreground against a deep winter landscape. Neel never came closer to emulating the compositions of such early Edvard Munch masterpieces as Summer Night (Inger on the Beach) (1889) or Melancholy (1891), where Munch intensified the subject's isolation by juxtaposing the figure against deep space. In this remarkable painting, made while Ginny was mourning her mother's death, Neel confronts the imminence of her own death.
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Childbirth
1939
Oil on canvas
Private collection
After leaving the hospital following Richard's birth, Alice Neel painted Childbirth, a portrait of her fellow maternity patient, Goldie Goldwasser, in the throes of labor. Since Neel almost certainly did not witness Goldwasser giving birth, she most likely presents her own experience, the agony she felt during the extended ordeal of childbirth.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Audrey McMahon
1940
Oil on board
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Audrey McMahon was the director of the New York division of the Federal Art Project, for which Alice Neel painted in the easel division from 1935 to 1943. McMahon not only laid off (and rehired) Neel several times, she also had to inform artists of pay cuts as program funding dwindled. When compared to contemporary photographs of McMahon, Neel's searing satirical portrait depicts the sitter as about thirty years older than she actually was.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Dead Father
1946
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
While Alice Neel frequently employed caricature in her paintings from memory, Dead Father is a touching elegy to a parent she wholeheartedly loved. Never having painted her father during his lifetime, possibly due to his reticent personality, Neel portrays him days after his death as he had appeared in his casket. Although painting the corpse of a loved one seems somewhat ghoulish to modern sensibilities, the practice had long-standing precedents in Latin American art.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Dore Ashton
1952
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Alice Neel's portraits from memory exhibit a strong sense of flatness, perhaps most strikingly in this image of art historian and champion of Abstract Expressionism Dore Ashton. Ashton is seen here either giving a talk on Abstract Expressionism or standing in front of such a painting. Neel intended that the highly textured background serve not only as a descriptive emblem, but also as an ironic demonstration that she could paint abstraction as well as any artist.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Ellie Poindexter
1962
Oil on canvas
Private collection
 
Alice Neel painted two portraits, a rather formal one and this one from memory, of Elinor Poindexter, founder of the Poindexter Gallery. Neel clearly did not enjoy the sittings and vented her anger in this second portrait, depicting Poindexter as a crabbed old woman with shrewd, calculating eyes. She had hoped that Poindexter, who exhibited second-generation Abstract Expressionists and figurative artists, would show her work, but no such offer was extended. [insert image from Cat. P 37. Fig 2]
 
Alice Neel, Ellie Poindexter, 1962, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches (76.2 x 61 cm), Estate of Alice Neel.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Snow on Cornelia Street
1933
Oil on canvas
Collection of Peggy Brooks
 
Alice Neel painted this view from the window of her 33 _ Cornelia Street residence immediately after her admission to the Works Progress Administration's Public Works of Art Project. Neel painted several snow scenes throughout her career, most of which are unpopulated, suggesting a sense of desolation. However, Snow on Cornelia Street depicts freshly fallen snow and celebrates the ordinary, small pleasures of city life.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Ninth Avenue El
1935
Oil on canvas
Private collection, courtesy Cheim & Read, New York
 
Ninth Avenue El is one of two surviving paintings by Alice Neel depicting street scenes at night. She created street-level cityscapes like this one in her studio with the aid of on-site sketches. Rather than celebrating the feats of modern engineering, the painting evokes nostalgia as subways were soon to replace the elevated trains seen here. It also expresses the rigors of Depression-era city life as skeletal figures imbue the scene with angst and isolation.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Fire Escape
1946
Oil on canvas
Collection of Peggy Brooks
 
Depicting the view from Alice Neel's apartment in Spanish Harlem, Fire Escape (1946) is an ironic expression of confinement. Working from home, Neel was rearing her sons, ages six and seven, when she created this melancholy cityscape. Her tight cropping of the scene illustrates her position as a stay-at-home mother and a voluntary exile from the downtown art world. The fire escape appears more like a cage than a means of egress.
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Fire Escape
1948
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Whereas Alice Neel painted Fire Escape (1946) at a level view, she looked up through her kitchen window to create Fire Escape (1948). The sliver of blue sky suggests a longing to escape, echoing the claustrophobic feeling of the previous painting. Reflecting the passage of time and emphasizing the absence of human presence, the organically shaped shadows contrast strongly with the rectilinear lines of the terracotta buildings.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Night
1959
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Alice Neel painted Night during a period of turbulent change in her life: her relationship with Sam Brody had ended, both of her sons had left home, and she was in psychotherapy. Neel displays her admiration for painter Clyfford Still, employing his vocabulary of marks to create a surface that renders the density of night. Quickly applied vertical strokes form the nighttime facade, through which light spills from a gap in the curtains.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
107th and Broadway
1976
Oil on canvas
Private collection, Washington, D.C.
Painted when Alice Neel was 76, 107th and Broadway is characteristic of her late cityscapes in its increased scale and lack of human activity. At this time, she was also interested in the impact of natural light and shadows. Neel freely admitted that, for her, the shadow that her building casts on its neighbor represents death.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Windows
1977
Oil on canvas
Collection of Toni Schulman, New York
 
Windows depicts an interior with the cityscape seen through an elaborately molded double-hung window with a partially drawn shade. In this painting, Alice Neel inverts the Renaissance convention of utilizing a window in an interior space to frame a view of the landscape as a portal to the natural world. Instead, she used the window to emphasize her schematic treatment of the building across the street to conjure a sense of longing and confinement.
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Bronx Bacchus
1929
Oil on canvas mounted on board
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Alice Neel's Bronx Bacchus was an act of rebellion against the traditional attitude espousing the depiction of the idealized nude as an indecent activity for female artists. Seen through the female gaze, the sitters, Fanya Foss and her husband, Gordon Kingman, are portrayed as consenting friends, playing along with Neel's game. Neither figure is idealized; Neel exaggerated the truth of what she observed in their overflowing, sagging, wrinkled, and uncontrolled bodies.
 
 
Alice Neel
 
American, 1900-1984
Ethel Ashton
1930
Oil on canvas
Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Hartley and Richard Neel, the artist's sons, 2006
 
In 1930, Alice Neel joined fellow artists Ethel Ashton and Rhoda Meyers in their Philadelphia studio, where she painted both of them naked. Ethel Ashton depicts a grotesque figure compressed by the edges of canvas, intensifying the feeling of discomfort for both viewer and sitter. The painting is like a manifesto, declaring the importance of portraying psychological truth, the centrality of the female body as a subject for female artists, and the control exerted by any artist in a studio environment.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Nadya Nude
1933
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Here Alice Neel portrays her close friend Nadya Olyanova, a graphologist, sensuously lying on a bed of crumpled sheets. Neel rendered her small, round face as a white Kabuki-like mask and made her left hand disproportionately delicate.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Joe Gould
1933
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Joe Gould was an extremely homely and odoriferous man who thought he was irresistible to women. Alice Neel was one of the few people who took pity on the homeless Greenwich Village eccentric, and this portrait illustrates Gould's exhibitionism and desperation to be noticed. With biting satire, she subjected Gould to ridicule and mockery by rendering his penis multiple times on the central figure and on the flanking male nudes.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Pregnant Julie and Algis
1967
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Alice Neel painted Pregnant Julie and Algis at a time when the women's movement was foregrounding the female body as a vehicle for radical feminist art. However, some feminists regarded pregnancy as prefiguring domestic enslavement. While Julie is liberated by her nudity and relaxed pose, her husband's stern expression and controlling arm placed around her shoulder asserts ownership.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Pregnant Woman
1971
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
This portrait, painted one week before Alice Neel's daughter-in-law Nancy gave birth to twins, conveys sickness, depression, and isolation. At this time, Nancy had also just been diagnosed with toxemia. Her husband shares her discomfort by proxy, present only in a drawing above her head.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
John Perreault
1972
Oil on canvas
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, gift of anonymous donors, 76.26
 
Alice Neel painted this portrait of John Perreault, an art critic, artist, poet, and curator, for an exhibition of the male nude he was organizing. Neel paid particular attention to Perreault's body hair and genitalia, located at the heart of the composition. Undermining his sexuality by portraying him through the female gaze as passively lying on a virginal white sheet, Neel perhaps tapped into the homosexuality that he was later to declare openly.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Margaret Evans Pregnant
1978
Oil on canvas
Collection of Barbara Lee, Cambridge, Massachusetts
 
Margaret Evans Pregnant is a portrait of the wife of one of Alice Neel's friends, the landscape painter John Evans. Neel placed Evans on the most uncomfortable pose imaginable, seated on a low boudoir chair that must have made both sitting down and rising a precarious exercise for a woman in her eighth month of pregnancy. Whereas Neel, after outlining the figure, almost always began by painting the head, here she began by painting Evan's distended belly, the focus of the image.
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Degenerate Madonna
1930
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Degenerate Madonna deals with Alice Neel's early experiences as a parent, specifically the death of Santillana and the loss of Isabetta. The overtly despairing image shows a stylized, grotesque mother caring for a child, whose ghostly double reveals Neel's interest in Symbolist painting. The mother is based on handwriting analyst Nadya Olyanova, Neel's close friend at that time. Neel elongates her face into a mask and caricatures her milkless breasts.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Hartley on the Rocking Horse
1943
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Alice Neel's paintings of parents with children typically focus on their interactions, not on domesticity as seen here in Hartley on the Rocking Horse. It shows Neel's younger son, Hartley, mounted on a rocking horse that Neel had found on the street near her apartment. Borrowing a device used by Velázquez in Las Meninas, Neel painted her own image as the artist at the easel, reflected in the mirror over the chest of drawers, highlighting her role as both mother and painter.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Black Spanish Family
1950
Oil on panel
Private collection
 
Heavily influenced by Van Gogh, Alice Neel usually pared down her pictures of mothers and children to their bare essentials. Black Spanish Family exemplifies this approach with its plain red background, strong contour lines, and discrete patches of bold colors. The unidentified sitters lived in Neel's neighborhood in Spanish Harlem. Neither sentimental nor romantic, Neel ennobles her sitters in their quiet dignity.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Mother and Child (Nancy and Olivia)
1967
Oil on canvas
Collection of Diane and David Goldsmith
 
This double portrait of Alice Neel's first grandchild, Olivia, and Nancy, the first wife of Neel's elder son, Richard, is an icon of feminism. Neel rejects stereotypical mother-and-child idealization by showing Nancy as dazed, clearly intimidated by the responsibility of caring for a helpless but demanding infant. This painting is also one of the few instances in which Neel combines portraiture and still life, inserting a pitcher atop a rickety table as a metaphor for the difficult balancing act of motherhood.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Nancy and the Twins (5 Months)
1971
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
After the birth of her twin daughters, Alexandra and Antonia, Alice Neel's daughter-in-law Nancy appears as a practiced, confident mother. In terms of the feminist movement and women's liberation, Neel's paintings of mothers with children give a voice to women enslaved by the role of motherhood. At the same time, they are also meditations on how, in paternalistic societies, women are defined by their ability to bear and nurture children, which elevates their status and affirms their worth.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Carmen and Judy
1972
Oil on canvas
Westheimer Family Collection, on loan from the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 2005.008
 
Carmen Gordon, a Haitian cleaning woman and babysitter, worked for both Alice Neel and her daughter-in-law Nancy. Whereas Carmen appears forceful and nurturing, her daughter Judy, who was developmentally disabled, is wraithlike and passive, unable to locate her mother's nipple. Neel stresses Gordon's dignity in the sympathetic treatment of her face and her struggles in her disproportionately large left hard. Shortly after Neel painted this picture, Judy succumbed to crib death.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Ginny and Elizabeth
1976
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
A double portrait of her daughter-in-law Ginny with her first child, Elizabeth, Ginny and Elizabeth was the closest Alice Neel came to a classic Madonna-and-Child image, although she reversed the traditional point of view by posing them on the floor rather than in an elevated position. The focus is on Elizabeth, who, bathed in light, occupies the center of the canvas, while Ginny, with her downcast, shadowed head, is more like a generic, watchful mother figure.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Don Perlis and Jonathan
1982
Oil on canvas
Moderna Museet, Stockholm, purchased 2009 with means from The Second Museum of Our Wishes, MOM/2009/024
 
Don Perlis and Jonathan, a rare example of a father and child in Neel's work, depicts figurative and landscape painter Don Perlis and his son, Jonathan. By showing Perlis with his son, who was born with cerebral palsy, in a traditional Madonna-and-Child pose, Neel captures a development in American life partly brought about by the feminist movement: the father as equal or primary parent.
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Isabetta
1934/35
Oil on canvas
Collection of Monika and Jonathan Brand
 
Isabetta was the second daughter of Alice Neel and Carlos Enríquez, her husband. When Isabetta was two years old, Enríquez took her to his family in Havana as he and Neel planned to study in Paris. He embarked on the trip alone, and Neel saw Isabetta only twice more as a child. This painting commemorates the first visit and shows a young girl confronting her mother. The viewer's embarrassment in looking at the child with bared genitalia parallels the uncomfortable estrangement of the mother-daughter relationship.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Olivia in Red Hat
1974
Oil on canvas
Private collection
 
Olivia in Red Hat depicts Alice Neel's first grandchild at age seven standing in the same pose as Isabetta, shown nearby. Whereas Isabetta is naked, Olivia wears a two-piece bathing suit. Neel apparently took great interest in her sons' firstborn children, both girls, and identified them with her lost daughter, Isabetta. Because of the exact duplication of the pose, Olivia's shadow can be read as a stand in for Isabetta, the daughter who was lost to Neel.
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Andrew
1978
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Andrew, Ginny and Hartley Neel's second child and Neel's only male grandchild, shows the five-month-old baby in the midst of having his diaper changed. Andrew is oblivious to his intruding grandmother and turns his attention to someone off canvas (presumably his mother). Painted mostly from memory, Neel appears to have collaged Andrew's head to his body, paying particular attention to his genitalia as she did in Isabetta.
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Victoria and the Cat
1980
Oil on canvas
Honolulu Academy of Arts, Bequest of Frederic Mueller, 1990 (6003.1)
 
Victoria, Nancy and Richard Neel's fourth and youngest daughter, comes under the scrutiny of her grandmother's detached gaze in this portrait, which depicts the plump girl at age six, clutching a cat like an inexperienced mother with a newborn child. Rather than empathizing with her granddaughter, Neel exposes her vulnerability and shyness, which Victoria attempts to conceal by partially hiding behind the cat. Though unflattering, the portrait is a memorable, amusing image of gawky youth.
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Last Sickness
1953
Oil on canvas
Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of Hartley S. Neel and Richard Neel, 2003 (2003-148-1)
 
Last Sickness depicts Alice Neel's mother when she was dying of cancer. While clearly sympathetic to her mother's plight, Neel is sufficiently detached not to shirk the harsh realities of old age and sickness. In this final portrait of her mother, she unflinchingly confronts her mother's pending demise, portraying her face half in shadow to represent the onset of death.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Baron's Aunt
1959
Oil on canvas
Heather James Fine Art
 
Baron's Aunt is a portrait of the aunt of Baron Erik von Anckarström. Neel met her when she was painting Von Anckarström's portrait. Probably responding to the Mondrianesque pattern of the outfit that she wore at the time, Neel asked to paint her at a later date in the same attire. The painterly, emotionally charged brushstrokes and thick impasto seem to mold the facial expression of the sitter.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Max White
1961
Oil on canvas
Estate of Alice Neel
 
Crippling arthritis prematurely aged Max White, who was only 55 when Alice Neel painted this third and final portrait of the author. Painted 26 years after her initial portrait of White, shown in "The Essential Portrait" section of this exhibition, which showed him sitting erect with his hands resting comfortably in his lap, this portrayal depicts White slumped in his chair with twisted and gnarled fingers. When Neel painted this image, she speculated that White would soon die, but he continued to live for more than two decades.
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
The Soyer Brothers
1973
Oil on canvas
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, purchase, with funds from Arthur M. Bullowa, Sydney Duffy, Stewart R. Mott and Edward Rosenthal, 74.77
 
The artists Raphael Soyer (left) and Moses Soyer (right) were twins who emigrated from Russia in 1913. Like Neel, they were leftists and rejected abstraction in favor of a humanistic approach. Neel painted the flesh of their faces by juxtaposing pure patches of color in a manner reminiscent of a Cézanne landscape -- a style Neel developed in the 1970s.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Self-Portrait
1980
Oil on canvas
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 85.19
 
While Alice Neel established her reputation by making portraits of family members or people she knew well, she did not paint herself until much later in life, when she produced this nude self-portrait. She had abandoned the work shortly after beginning it in 1975, but, encouraged by her son Richard, completed it in 1980 at the age of 80. In a brutally frank self-assessment, Neel shows herself no mercy.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Gus Hall
1981
Oil on canvas
Private collection
 
The son of Finnish parents who were founding members of the Communist Party USA, Gus Hall was a lifelong Communist who ran for president of the United States on the Communist ticket four times. Neel depicts him as an undaunted diehard, sitting indomitable in his fur-collared coat and Cossack hat as his pale blue eyes burn with idealism. Despite her sympathetic treatment, Neel's melancholic portrait reflects an unacknowledged disillusionment.
 
 
Alice Neel
American, 1900-1984
Meyer Schapiro
1983
Oil on canvas
The Jewish Museum, New York, purchase, S. H. and Helen R. Scheuer Family Foundation Fund, 1995-111
 
Alice Neel had painted an earlier portrait of Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro from memory, but unmistakably made this one from life. Neel's portrait seems to capture Schapiro in midsentence, and she does not neglect the telltale signs of decay, such as his discolored teeth, gray hair, and furrowed brow. Originally a medievalist, Schapiro became an influential exponent of European modernism and wrote monographs on Van Gogh and Cézanne, both heroes of Neel's.
 
 
Hartley Neel
American, born 1941
Short film of Alice Neel painting Ginny in a Blue Shirt
1969
8 minutes
 
This short film shows Alice Neel painting Ginny in a Blue Shirt, a portrait of her future daughter-in-law that Neel painted when she visited her son Hartley and Ginny in San Francisco. Hartley documented the sitting with a 16 mm Bolex, a professional motion-picture camera. In the middle of the sitting, Ginny received a phone call from a friend with sad news, which is evident in her demeanor in the film and in the final painting.
 
 
Michael Auder
French, born 1945
Alice Neel: Painting Margaret, 1978
1978
31 minutes
 
In this film, Michel Auder documents Alice Neel painting Margaret Evans Pregnant, a psychologically complex and socially audacious nude portrait of Margaret Evans, the wife of artist John Evans, who was pregnant with twins. Posing over three summer days in 1978, Margaret not only endured the intense gaze of Neel, but also that of Auder. Emerging from the Parisian bohemia of the 1960s, Auder has been making films indebted to Andy Warhol's let-the-camera-roll aesthetic for the last 40 years. He considers Alice Neel to have been one of his closest friends.

For biographical information on certain artists referenced above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists

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