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Alice Neel: Painting People Left Out of the Picture

Issue 263

Gerald Meyer Apr 23

Alice Neel, (American, 1900–1984) T.B. Harlem, 1940. Oil on canvas 30 × 30 in. (76.2 × 76.2 cm) National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay © The Estate of Alice Neel

In a world that viewed portrait painting as an affectation of the rich, Alice Neel (1900-1984) believed all people had a right to have a portrait painted. On canvas, Neel depicted everyday people in a way that dignified them and viewed them as agents for change. She gave her subjects both personality and character, a feat that revealed their capacity to endure and to struggle. They are never broken or demoralized. And now we have a glorious new exhibition of more than 100 of her paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that brings her art to life and affirms the belated recognition she has received as one of the great painters of the 20th century.

Neel rejected abstract-expressionism, the prevailing style of painting, where people and their background disappeared or belonged to the artist. Like Van Gogh, Thomas Eaton, Robert Henri, Raphael Soyer and others, she employed social realism, a style of painting where the images in her paintings are recognizable. She vivified social realism by introducing expressionistic techniques: exaggeration, bold colors and, most important, painting directly onto the canvas. Her artistic choices associated her with a style of painting that had been discredited as the imposition of leftists and Communists. She didn’t retreat from that accusation, she embraced it and surpassed it. She insisted she was not just painting individuals. Through her subjects she intended, and often succeeded, to paint their times and circumstances. She declared: “When portraits are good art, they reflect the culture, time and many other things.” Famously, she argued, “Art is a form of history, painting is an historical act where one has the chance to know both the individual(s) and his/her times.” Late in her life, Neel called the collectivity of her paintings, “A monument to the people.”

Alice Neel, (American, 1900–1984) The Spanish Family, 1943. Oil on canvas. 34 × 28 in. (86.4 × 71.1 cm) Estate of Alice Neel © The Estate of Alice Neel

While studying at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, Neel met Carlos Enríquez, a Cuban artist who, despite his bourgeois background, was a committed leftist. In 1926, the newly wedded couple arrived in Havana. Bored with upper-class dining and recreational rituals, nightly the newlyweds escaped to Vibora, a harbor district that attracted the desperately poor and those determined to reverse their fate. It was the other side of La Vibora where she encountered revolutionaries such as Alejo Carpentier, a founder of the Cuban Communist Party. There she learned of Marxism and imperialism, which informed her artistic decisions.

In 1927, Neel, now pregnant, left Cuba for New York. The following two years were an unspeakable catastrophe. She lost two daughters — Santianna, who died in 1928 of diphtheria at the age of one, and Isabetta, whose care was assumed by her husband’s family in 1930. Her suicide attempts led to prolonged stays in psychiatric hospitals. These harrowing years explain her many portraits of pregnant women and even more often, children.

Neel then settled in Greenwich Village. There she became immersed in leftist politics. She gained employment in the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Program, where she earned a small but steady income working in its coveted brush-and-easel section until the WPA was disbanded in 1943 due to the war.

Alice Neel, (American, 1900–1984) Dominican Boys on 108th Street, 1955. Oil on canvas 41 7/8 × 48 1/16 in. (106.3 × 122 cm) Tate: Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Hartley and Richard Neel, the artist’s sons 2004 © The Estate of Alice Neel

In stark contrast with the upper-class Enríquez, Neel fell in love with Kenneth Doolittle, a sailor. While living with Doolittle, Alice produced shameless drawings of their love life. “Her intimacy is sexual,” one critic noted. These and subsequent works speak to Alice’s liberation from patriarchy, but it did not protect her from male brutality. In 1934, fueled by alcohol and jealousy, Doolittle tore to pieces 70 of her oil paintings and incinerated two years of her drawings. In contrast with earlier catastrophes, her tightly-woven support system prevented yet another breakdown.

During this period, Neel did good work. She produced semi-surrealistic paintings that were generated from her grief. Other paintings were blatantly political. Nazis Kill Jews depicts a mass demonstration with working-class marchers holding aloft flares and placards. However, these paintings lacked the features that would become her stylistic signature.

In 1934, Neel first met José Santiago Negrón, a Puerto Rican younger than her at a club, where he was singing and playing Latin guitar music. It was José who would provide her with passage to Spanish Harlem, where she would stay for more than two decades.

Her sunny apartment was large enough to serve as a studio and sufficient space to raise two sons, Richard and Hartley. Neel wasn’t an outsider in the Barrio — she spoke Spanish with her neighbors and interacted with storekeepers. Like so many others, she raised two sons on her own, one of whom was born there. El Barrio was also a leftist community where a majority of its residents voted for the American Labor Party, who elected Vito Marcantonio to Congress. It was in El Barrio where she painted what have been called her “essential portraits.”

Alice Neel, (American, 1900–1984) Margaret Evans Pregnant, 1978. Oil on canvas 57 3/4 × 38 1/2 in. (146.7 × 97.8 cm) Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Gift of Barbara Lee, The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women © The Estate of Alice Neel

Negrón became the subject of some of her earliest East Harlem paintings. He was not the only man she painted erotically, but he was the only one she painted with love. Some of her best portraits are compositions of members of his family. T.B. Harlem, for example, shows his brother in bed in a tragic-erotic pose, where white bandaging covers wounds caused by the removal of ribs to treat his tuberculosis. It was in East Harlem where she began painting children in classics such as The Spanish Family and Dominican Boys on 108th Street. There were the people in a place that best matched up with her art and her politics. Michael Gold, the Communist writer, best summed up the meaning of Neel’s East Harlem portraits: “Some of the melancholy of the region counts over her work … . But there is a truth and unquestionable faith. Neel ennobles her sitters in their quiet dignity.”

In 1960, Neel moved to a larger apartment on the Upper East Side. From there she painted a much wider spectrum of subjects: a fuller brush salesman, pregnant women, Communists, gays and lesbians. While the social circumstances of their lives still shine through in paintings like Margaret Evans Pregnant, they seem to be more psychological than social. But her work remained unmistakably her.

Never one to flinch from reality, Neel posed for her own nude self-portrait at the age of 80. Shortly before she died, Neel said that the world was divided in a great struggle between socialism and capitalism. There never was a doubt which side she was on.

Alice Neel: People Come First
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Through August 1

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