Alice Neel was known for her Expressionist portraits of both famous and ordinary people.
Neel was the fourth of five children. She grew up in Colwyn, Pennsylvania, a small town where she did not fit in. From an early age, Neel wanted to be a painter. To please her parents, she worked in clerical positions as a teenager. She found those jobs stifling though. So, she took art classes at the Moore College of Art, the first college of art in the United States for women. During her time in art school, Neel learned about portraiture and trained to be a figure painter.
In the 1930s, Neel’s career was funded by the Public Works of America Project and by the Works Progress Administration. Her painting style was not very popular. Abstract art was in style at the time. She painted people though, especially her family and neighbors. She also did some still lifes, landscapes, and cityscapes. Her paintings had an unfinished look. Since she rarely painted on commission, she painted however she wanted.
By the late 1950s, there was growing interest in Neel’s work. Her colors and approach became bolder. The New York Times wrote “She laid brush to canvas in a plain, straightforward manner, using the paint not fancily but simply to convey an image.” In the 1960s, Neel received attention because of the portraits that she did of famous people including Andy Warhol. One of her subjects, Red Grooms, told the Washington Post, “She was famous for her X-ray eye, and for her cruel, biting line, that killer line that describes everything.” Theodore F. Wolff wrote “As an artist, Alice Neel always spoke the truth… Confronted by reality, she preferred to depict it as it was rather than as it should be… regardless of whose feelings were hurt or whose ideals were offended.”
In 1974, Neel was the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum. This exhibit brought her more of an audience. Because she was able to explain her art so well, she did lectures in the 1980s. She painted her two sons and their wives. She also painted several portraits that became covers for Time magazine. Near the end of her life, Neel continued to paint despite illnesses including cataracts. Despite the growing appreciation for her work, Neel still did not sell many paintings. By her death, she owned most of her work.
Neel died in 1984 in New York. Many critics believed she was underrated in her lifetime. This did not matter to Neel though. She painted for her own reasons. In 1982, Neel told the New York Times, “I’ve always been interested, I’ve always been curious, and I’ve always had a profession. Painting is an obsession with me.”
Neel’s life and works are featured in the documentary film “Alice Neel,” which was directed by her grandson, Andrew.
Portrait drawn by yours truly.