|A biography of Alice Neel|
This biographical note is designed to accompany Loretta Cremmins's article: Alice Neel Portraits of Women in 1970's America
By Loretta Cremmins
While mocking herself, Alice Neel exclaimed, “Alice Neel! The woman who paints like a man! [I said] that I did not paint like a man but like a woman— but not like a woman is supposed to paint.” Though nonsensical at first glance, Neel’s quote reveals the pioneering role she played in the American art world of the twentieth century. A woman who battled convention and society’s gender roles, Neel was regarded as acting masculine by being a bold and innovative painter. Yet she did not see it as so. As noted in her muddled comment, she was not painting like a man. Rather, what Alice Neel did was paint portraits the way she wanted, based on her experience being a female and having a female body. Today we might wonder what makes this ‘masculine’ or not characteristic of a female. Yet when we place this behavior in context and understand it in the era Neel was painting, it becomes clear that this was exceptional behavior for a twentieth century woman. A clever lady, Neel was both painfully aware of this and remorseful of the limitations it imposed on her life. In spite of the nagging pull of internal and societal tension to conform to traditional gender ideology, Neel astonishingly ascended from an impoverished bohemian to one of the most respected female painters of the century.
Neel not only became an esteemed individual of the twentieth century, she liked to claim she was the century. Once more, in spite of the dry humor she evidently possessed, in many ways, she really was. Born at the turn of the century, Neel painted through the Depression, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights Movement, the sexual revolution of the ‘60’s, feminism, and the feverish eighties. Furthermore, Alice Neel did more than just paint pictures of these periods. Rather, her work encapsulated them. She aimed high, ambitiously setting out to record and capture life, or as she liked to put it, the Zeitgeist. And when we look at the vast range of paintings Neel left behind when she passed away in 1985, it is undeniable that she achieved this improbable goal. “I have felt that people’s images reflect the era in a way that nothing else could,” claimed Neel.  It is this vision, combined with her psychiatrist-like abilities, which enabled Neel to look at people and see beyond their apparent façade to their inner struggles. This method of painting sitters’ internal and often concealed emotional experiences is more similar to collecting personal diaries than traditional portraits. It is therefore understandable that Neel thought of her portraits in humanist terms rather than colors and composition. In fact, Neel claimed that she did not paint likenesses of people, rather their souls. And as a self-described ‘collector of souls,’ Neel believed she actually absorbed a little bit of the sitter, or as Henry Hope jokingly claimed ‘her victims,’ in every portrait she painted. Though perhaps an exaggeration of the truth, the importance of this was Neel’s keen ability to look past external appearances and understand humans for all they truly are.
While previous portrait artists painted beautiful or flattering representations, Neel shrugged off these agreeable distortions in search of the truth. “As for people who want flattering paintings of themselves,” Neel remarked, “even if I wanted to do them, I wouldn’t know what flattery is. To me, as Keats said, beauty is truth, truth beauty. Altered noses always look much worse. I paint to try to reveal the struggle, tragedy and joy of life.” Thus, the vast number of individuals who sat for Neel, under the scrutiny of her probing eye and wandering paintbrush, can be seen as a universe of candid personalities. This speaks to Neel’s ability to read people with an eye of a shrink. “Now I’ll admit,” she tells the camera in a documentary produced about her, “that compositionally they’re [a table, a chair and a person] the same. But actually they’re different. Human beings are different from furniture. You know, furniture doesn’t have blood, it doesn’t have expression, and I think that the value of psychology is shown today because the world we live in is almost purely psychological.” This fixation on the psychological is, to some extent, what sets Neel’s work in a category of its own. By adding this additional component, almost a fifth sense, to her portraits, Neel injected a new-fangled level of humanity into her work. And when regarded as a collective whole, Neel’s portfolio serves as a window into what life was like for her sitters.
While Neel’s portraits depict a gradient of New York City inhabitants, they can also be seen in an even greater context. Alice Neel’s work is universal in scope because her portraits unearth widespread anxieties and concerns that we have all experienced. Neel’s portraits of people living in New York do not depict the frustration of a late subway or the excitement of performing in Broadway. Instead, she depicted issues such as relationships, motherhood, gender and age. These timeless, boundary-less genres need not be limited to New York City or even twentieth century America. These constraints are helpful in allowing us to read Neel’s work and situate it in a historical context, but when viewed from the most basic perspective, Alice Neel’s work in fact represents the experience of being human. Through the analysis of five strategic paintings, this essay will uncover five chief human struggles that Neel addressed. It will begin with a brief biography of Neel’s life leading up to the ‘70s in order to create a background upon which to situate these works. Then it will turn to the work itself to view Neel’s depictions of motherhood, gender, pregnancy, homosexuality and lastly, the human relationship with one’s self. By viewing the composition, context, Neel’s own descriptions and reviewer’s commentary, this essay will seek to uncover how Neel succeeded in painting portraits which portrayed individual people, a city, a decade, a century, and the experience of being a human—using no more than a few brushstrokes and some colored paint.
Neel fought personal struggles all her life. Alice Hartley Neel was born on January 28, 1930 in a rural Pennsylvanian town. Her father, George Washington Neel, was a clerk for the Pennsylvania Railroad, son of a Civil War veteran and from a family that owned a steamship company and included several opera singers. Neel’s mother, Alice Concross Hartley, was a descendent of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Neel was one of five children. She recalls that when she was a child, her mother used to say, “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world; you’re only a girl”. These words affixed themselves in Neel’s mind and continued to haunt her for decades.
Upon graduating high school, Alice Neel enrolled in a business course that taught typing and stenography. She proceeded to take the civil service exam and was hired as a secretary with the Army Air Corps, a stereotypical female profession. In this capacity, Neel worked under Lieutenant Theodore Sizer who would become an art historian at Yale University.In the evenings, Neel took classes at the School of Industrial Art, a division of the Pennsylvania (later Philadelphia) Museum of Art. In 1921, Neel enrolled in the fine art program at the Philadelphia School of Design for Woman (today Moore College of Art and Design). According to the school records, she used her savings to pay the first year yet later received Senatorial scholarships (states-funded) for the following three years. Neel also received prizes in her portrait class two years in a row. During the summer of 1924, Neel attended the Chester Springs Summer School through the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts, which offered outdoor painting classes. It was here that she met Cuban artist Carlos Enriquez, the son of a prominent family in Havana. It is said that Enriquez didn’t do much work that summer apart from courting Neel.
Neel married Enriquez in June of 1925 and she travelled with him to Havana, Cuba. Here, they lived as artists, “painting night and day” and in the fall, Neel had her first solo exhibition. It was in Havana that she gave birth to a daughter, Santillana del Mar Enriquez. In 1927, Neel, Enriquez and the baby returned to New York and here, Neel’s life began to fall apart. Infant Santillana fell ill and passed away from diphtheria. Her work Futility of Effort (1930) was related to this event. Yet the following year, Neel gave birth to a second daughter, Isabella Lillian Enriquez, who she affectionately called Isabetta. In July of 1930, Enriquez travelled back to Havana with Isabetta in hopes of getting financial help from his wealthy family. He planned to leave Isabetta with his family, so that he and Neel could travel to Paris. Finding that there was not enough money for the two to travel, Enriquez left Isabetta in the care of his two sisters and departed for Paris, alone.
Neel spent the summer of 1930 painting intensely— however, come August, she experienced a nervous breakdown. She later described the experience as a “chill that lasted at least eight hours.” She remained at home under her mother’s care until October, when Neel was hospitalized at Orthopedic Hospital in Philadelphia, where she remained through Christmas of that year. The following year, Enriquez returned to America to visit Neel and take her home to her parent’s house. Shortly thereafter, she made her first attempt at suicide via the gas oven in her parent’s kitchen. Hospitalized in Wilmington, DE, she was “chained to the bed.” In a second suicidal attempt, Neel violently smashed glass with the intention of swallowing the shards. She was promptly sent to the suicide ward at Philadelphia General Hospital and eventually transferred to the suicide ward at Gladwyne Colony. Despite Neel’s condition, Enriquez returned to Paris and the two remained in contact via letters. It was at the Gladwyne Colony that Neel was encouraged to continue her passion: painting and drawing. This recommendation was alternative to the conventional treatment of nervous conditions at this time (which prescribed that a patient cease all activities related to professional life.) Although the reasons for Neel’s suicidal behavior are blurred, it is interesting to note that her paintings of mother and children of the 1930’s are said to have all been self-portraits of mother and children.
By 1932, Neel was discharged and travelled to Stockton, New Jersey to visit friends. Here she met Kenneth Doolittle, a sailor. Together, Neel and Doolittle moved to thirty-three Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village, New York. Neel became involved in the village art scene and participated in the Washington Square Park Outdoor Exhibition. However, one particular work, Degenerate Madonna, was removed on insistence from Catholic churches in the area. At this street exhibition, Neel became acquainted with John Rothschild, a Harvard graduate from a wealthy family who was in charge of a travel business. Rothschild became a friend with whom Neel remained close for the remainder of her life.
In 1933, Neel exhibited at the Mellon Galleries in Philadelphia in an international exhibition. She received a flattering mention in the Philadelphia Inquirer (March 19) by the critic, Arthur B. Carles. He remarked; “Among the Americans there is a one-time Philadelphian, Alice Neel, whose “Red Houses” and “Snow” reveal the possession of interpretive gifts out of the ordinary. There is nothing “pretty” about these pictures, but they have substance and honesty.” This same year, Neel enrolled in the Public Works of Art Project, a government funded program run under the auspices of the Whitney Museum of American Art. For this work, the artist recalled, she was paid thirty dollars per week, later increased to thirty five. “This was fabulous,” she later declared, “as most of the artists had nothing in those days and in fact there were free lunches for artists in the Village ... All the artists were on the project. If there had been no such cultural projects there might well have been a revolution.” Paintings by the participating artists were acquired as part of the program, yet many were eventually destroyed. During this time, she painted a nude portrait of Joe Gould, a well-known Greenwich Village bohemian, as well as other village personalities. Moreover, Neel became a painter of strong social conscience and equally strong left wing beliefs.
Enriquez returned to Cuba from Spain following the death of his mother and in this mental state, he wrote to Neel in hope of rekindling their marriage. Entangled romantically with Doolittle and strongly pursued by Rothschild, Neel was overwhelmed by this news. Although the two never officially filed for a divorce, the couple never met again. In September of 1933, Neel entered on the payroll of the Works Progress Administration, WPA, which replaced the PWAP. It was later called the Work Projects Administration. Employed in its Easel Division, Neel received a wage of $103.40 per month. Yet in order to receive the wages, Neel had to follow strict directives. She was required her to turn in one painting every six weeks. Neel’s canvases all measured 24 x 30 inches. And what was the most difficult were the required topics. Neel says of these: “I had not done street scenes before. Besides showing the neighbors and everything, else I showed the condition of the people.” In December, Doolittle, in a fit of rage, burned and slashed beyond repair approximately sixty paintings and three hundred drawings and watercolors of Neel’s in the New York studio. Neel escaped without injury. With the help of Rothschild and her parents, Neel left Doolittle and purchased a modest house in Spring Lake, New Jersey. She continued to spend part of each summer here for the rest of her life. Isabetta visited her mother here for a couple of summers, before she returned to Cuba and tragically committed suicide.
Before long, Rothschild made the decision to leave his wife and children (the subject of a number of Neel’s paintings) and move in with Neel. She was apparently ambivalent about this and instead bought an apartment in New York for herself. Around this time, Neel met Jose Santiago Negron, a nightclub singer. In January of 1936, Neel received notice of a WPA pay adjustment to just $95.44 per month. Professionally, Neel exhibited at the A.C.A. Gallery in New York, in a show of winners in a contest held by the American Artist’s Congress. According to the artist Stuart Davis’s introduction, their aim was to “achieve unity of action among artists of recognized standing in their profession on all issues which concern their economic and cultural security and freedom, and to fight War, Fascism and Reaction, destroyers of art and culture.’ Neel’s painting, Nazis Murder Jews, earned recognition in a review by Emily Genauer in the New York World Telegram. Also that year, Art Front, the journal of the Artist’s Union (an informal group of young radical artists who demand government patronage of the arts) published an illustration of Neel’s 1930 painting Poverty (now known as the Futility of Effort). 
In the summer of 1937, Neel was once more hospitalized for a miscarriage. Not long after, she received even more bad news: a notice of another WPA pay adjustment to $91.10 per month. The following year, Neel left the village and moved to Spanish Harlem with Negron, notwithstanding the fact that he was married and had an infant child whom Neel painted multiple times. May 1938 marked Neel’s first New York solo show comprised of sixteen paintings at Contemporary Arts, on West 57th Street. She was later included in three group exhibitions at this gallery and showed four paintings in the exhibition The New York Group at the A.C.A. Gallery. The exhibition brochure declares; “The New York Group is interested in those aspects of contemporary life which reflect the deepest feelings of the people: their poverty, their surroundings, their desire for peace, their fight for life.” Though written about the show at large, this description seems to speak to a great extent of Neel’s work throughout her life.
In the fall of 1939, Neel gave birth a son with Negron, Richard Neel, and just three months later Negron abandoned her. A bad situation became worse as Neel was terminated from the WPA— although she was reassigned by October. A quick mover in terms of relationships, Neel met a new interest by the winter. Sam Brody, a photographer and filmmaker, was a founding member of a radical filmmaking cooperative, The Film and Photo League. Despite his wife and children (whom Neel also painted) the two moved in together and began a serious relationship. Not long after, Neel gave birth to another son, Hartley Stockton Neel and together they moved to Spanish Harlem, where Neel remained for the next twenty years. It was here that Neel did most of her painting. Jeremy Lewison, an art historian views this move as a turning point in Neel’s career, “ She was to a certain extent committing artistic suicide. Saying goodbye to the scene and isolating herself. She said she moved in order to get to the truth. She wanted to paint real people, the people on the street, people having a hard life.” Yet this desire for real people and raw emotions is what made Neel unique and later, appreciated— the opposite of artistic suicide.
Congress terminated the WPA in 1943. Neel thus began collecting public assistance and continued to do so until mid-1950’s. As such, she and her sons lived in extreme poverty and she later remarked; “I wanted everything. Everybody wants everything. But it just might be that they get practical and have to settle for a certain amount. I guess I just wasn’t practical.” Neel’s work was published five times during the years 1949 -1961 in the communist journal Masses and Mainstream. Moreover, in 1950, Neel landed her first solo exhibition in six years at the A.C.A. Gallery, which led to a sort of resurgence; she had solo shows at the New Playwrights Theatre in 1951 and the A.C.A. Gallery in 1954. In October of 1955, FBI agents approached Neel for an interview. Her files show that she had been under investigation from as early as 1951, owing to her periodic involvement with the Communist party. The files described her as a ‘romantic Bohemian type Communist.’ According to her sons, Neel asked the agents to sit for portraits—yet they declined.
1959 marked Neel’s first film appearance in Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s beat movie, Pull My Daisy. Her co-stars were Gregory Corso, Mary Frank, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Peter Orlofsky. Now in the company of more elite personalities, Neel painted two portraits the following year of Frank O’Hara, poet, critic and MOMA curator. In 1950’s America, abstract expressionism was in vogue. The end of the 1950’s thus proved to be perhaps the hardest part of Neel’s life, as she resolutely remained a figurative and realist painter despite the unpopularity of this style. In the 1960’s Neel began to receive recognition and her work was exhibited at several galleries across the country. In February 1961, Mainstream, a Communist publication, featured Neel’s drawing of W. E. B. Du Bois alongside his article ‘The Color of England.’ Furthermore, her portrait of Kenneth Fearing (1935) graced the cover of Mainstream in a special issue dedicated to Fearing. ArtNews published the first major feature article to examine Neel’s work in 1962 in a piece titled ‘Introducing the Portraits of Alice Neel’ by the critic, Hubert Crehan.  Moreover, Neel received Longview Foundation Purchase Award from Dilllard University, an award given to under-recognized artists. With a new determination to reintegrate with the New York art world, Neel left Spanish Harlem and moved to a more strategic location on West 107th Street and Broadway. Here Neel created the majority of her paintings.
In 1964, Neel began receiving a yearly stipend of $6,000 from a benefactor, psychiatrist Dr. Muriel Gardner, whom she met through John Rothschild. This stipend carried on until the end of her life. Professionally she participated in the first of four exhibitions of Paintings Eligible for Purchase under the Childe Hassam Fund at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which placed her art in public collections.
One more, in 1968, Neel had a in a solo exhibition at the Graham Gallery. In 1969, she did not exhibit but protested publically against the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to criticize the absence of women and African American Artists in their exhibitions. She also traveled to the Soviet Union with Rothschild. In May, Neel received an award of $3,000 from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In addition to taking multiple trips to Europe throughout the decade, this period also marked the birth of Neel’s first grandchild. Stylistically, the turbulence of Neel’s work in the early sixties matured into what would become Neel’s signature style for the rest of her life. Such paintings typically incorporate most, if not all, of a figure’s body and head on a large canvas ranging from four to seven feet tall. The image, bright and well lit, is due to the large north-facing windows in Neel’s living room studio. The figure is outlined by a strong contour line that Neel always painted in thinned black or blue oil. And most importantly, Neel zoomed in on the person’s physical imperfections: the wrinkles of a forehead, the double chin, the big ears, and especially the hands. What’s more, a strong vein of humor, as evident in her above stated quotes, runs through all Neel’s portraits.
Life, for Alice Neel, changed in the 1970’s. Though the timeline is untidy and hard to differentiate, two distinct changes in America coincided with Neel’s simultaneous rise to greater recognition. First, in terms of artistic trends, realistic paintings became more in vogue. Additionally, the second wave feminist movement began forming and was looking for artists to represent them. For Neel, a realist painter who represented a strong female, this was a double stroke of good luck. For the first time, she was asked to paint portraits of public figures, including Ted Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt and Andy Warhol. In 1971, she participated in the National Academy of Design exhibition and received the Benjamin Altman Figure Prize of $2,500. Neel’s painting, The Family, was even included in the Whitney Museum’s annual exhibition in 1972. Success continued in the form of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and Neel participated in eight exhibitions devoted to the work of women artists between the years of 1973 and 1975. Most remarkably, the Whitney Museum honored Neel with the first retrospective exhibition of her work titled Alice Neel, curated by Elke Solomon. It included fifty-eight paintings and an eight-page brochure. Neel’s admirers are said to have considered it an “inadequate tribute” while Neel herself viewed it as “a triumph.” The Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Georgia, followed suit and presented Alice Neel: The Woman and Her Work, which was comprised of eighty-three paintings and was also accompanied by a catalogue.
The now-prominent Neel had six other solo exhibitions during 1975 and participated in sixteen group exhibitions. Neel was consequently inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters the following year. And due to the feminist movement, Neel was honored by receiving theInternational Woman’s Year Award in 1976 “in recognition of outstanding cultural contributions and dedication to women and art.” Her 1940 painting, T.B.Harlem, was included in the groundbreaking exhibition Woman Artists, 1550-1950. Moreover, in 1979 Neel was named the recipient of the National Women’s Caucus for Art Award, presented by Jimmy Carter, for outstanding achievement in the visual arts. Among many other exhibitions during this period, Neel participated in two shows focusing on WPA artists of the 1930s, one at the Parsons School of Design, New York, and the other a traveling exhibition organized by the Gallery Association of New York.
Just as she entered the ‘60s with an iconic cultural image, the film Pull My Daisy, Neel entered the ‘70s with a portrait of Kate Millett, commissioned by Time magazine. A radical feminist, Millett had just published the groundbreaking book Sexual Politics. As one of the first feminists to bring Western cultural history under scrutiny, Millett’s book deconstructed the sexism of the patriarchal literary canon.Because Millett refused to sit for a portrait, Neel painted her from a photograph. Resultantly, the painting was regarded as not one of her best pieces. Nevertheless, it was widely reproduced.In turn, this iconic painting was a catalyst for change. Chiefly, this worked tied Alice Neel and her paintings to the burgeoning second wave feminist movement. As Phoebe Hoban eloquently put it, “it branded Neel…as inextricable” from this movement. Furthermore, this single painting launched the era of “feminist art.” This era was introduced by art historian Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking essay in ARTnews, “What Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” “The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or in our empty internal spaces,” wrote Nochlin, “but in our institutions and our education.”Her strong criticism pointed out that women artists were historically not even allowed to paint from the nude until the early twentieth century. Thus the thesis in Nochlin’s argument was that women did not contain inherent “weaker” traits, rather that the ongoing patriarchal attitude of the white Western academic was flawed.Her piece soon became a ‘feminist gospel,’ paving the path for many already rapidly increasing women’s art coalitions, which in turn bloomed into a remarkable generation of female artists. Moreover, it turned the long-awaited spotlight on Ms. Alice Neel and her portraits of women and it dubbed her the poster-child of the feminist movement.
 Henry Hope , Alice Neel: Portraits of an Era
 Denise Bauer, "Alice Neel's Female Nudes" Woman's Art Journal, vol. 15, no. 2 (Fall 1994-Winter 1995), 21
 Phoebe Hoban, The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, New York: St. Martin's, 2010. Inside cover flap synopsis
 Henry R. Hope, "Alice Neel: Portraits of an Era," Art Journal, vol. 38, no. 4 (Summer 1979), pp.273-81., 281
 Hoban, 306
 Alice Neel, written and directed by Andrew Neel, produced by Rebecca Spence and Ethan Palmer, Art House Films, United States: Arts Alliance America, 2008
 Alice Neel website: http://www.aliceneel.com/biography/1920.shtml
 Patti Goldstein, Soul on Canvas New York Magazine - Vol. 12, No. 28, 76
 Alice Neel: The Woman and Her Work: 7 September-19 October 1975, Athens: Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 1975
 Hills, Alice Neel, p. 32
 Alice Neel Film
 Alice Neel Film
 Alice Neel Film
 New York City WPA Art: Then and Now, New York: NYC WPA Artists, 1977, p. 66
 Alice Neel: The Woman and Her Work
 Alice Neel: The Woman and Her Work
 Alice Neel Film
 Alice Neel: The Woman and Her Work
 Alice Neel Film
 Alice Neel Film
 Alice Neel Film
 Alice Neel Film
 Hoban, 264
 Hoban, 263
 Hoban, 264
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