Alice Neel (1900 - 1984)

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Birthdate:
Birthplace: Merion Square, Pennsylvania, United States
Death: Died in New York, New York, United States
Cause of death: colon cancer
Managed by: Erica Howton, (c)
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About Alice Neel

Alice Neel (January 28, 1900 – October 13, 1984) was an American artist known for her oil on canvas portraits of friends, family, lovers, poets, artists and strangers. Her paintings are notable for their expressionistic use of line and color, psychological acumen, and emotional intensity.

Parents: George Washington Neel and Alice Concross Hartley.

Married:

  1. in 1925 to Carlos Enríquez Gómez (1900-1957), a Cuban painter and son of wealthy parents.
  2. 1932, liason with Kenneth Doolittle, sailor, who burned 50 of her paintings.
  3. 1934, liason with Jose Santiago Negron, Puerto Rican nightclub singer.
  4. 1940, Sam Brody (1907-1987), who was a left-wing filmmaker, photographer and critic.

Children of Alice Neel and Carlos Enriquez:

  1. Santillana (1926-1927) died of diptheria.
  2. Isabetta (1928-)

Children of Alice Neel and Jose Santiago:

  1. Richard (1939-)

Children of Alice Neel and Sam Brody:

  1. Hartley (1941-)

From her obituaries

Obituaries recount her courageous life, her dedication to art, and her struggles against the tide of the art world.

William G. Blair of the New York Times calls her (October 14) :

‘the quintessential bohemian ... [whose] unconventional and intense representational portraits, many painted in her early years, were neglected, even resented, in official art world circles’ and notes that ‘in the last decades of her life, the honors that had been denied her came her way.’


Stephan Salisbury of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes (October 16):

‘Steadfast in the pursuit of her own vision and amused by her ability to shock both the art world and the arbiters of American taste, Miss Neel lived a singular life devoted to painting and to the laughing, suffering world around her.’

Quotes

“I paint my time using people as evidence.”


"Every person is a new universe unique with its own laws emphasizing some belief or phase of life immersed in time and rapidly passing by."

“I always painted like a woman, but I don't paint like a woman is supposed to paint.”

That’s hard to reconcile with Neel’s physical appearance as a sweet, cuddly grandmother, so demure that many doubted she was a painter at all, let alone a radical leftist and one-time member of the Communist Party. In the 1950s, at the height of the McCarthy era, two FBI men turned up at her door in New York’s Spanish Harlem, Ginny recounts. “We know you’re not a Communist,” these gentlemen said, “but you have friends that are.” They wanted names.

In a perfect retort, Neel replied calmly, “You know, the only people I don’t have represented in my portfolio are FBI men. Won’t you sit for me?” Her interrogators left on the spot.

Heroes and wretches

Francis Bacon used to say that no artist in their lifetime can possibly know whether or not he/she is any good. Only time, he said, could sort out the twin perils that beset every artist: theory, by which "most people enter a painting", and fashion - what an audience feels it should or should not be moved by. Bacon reckoned this "sort out" period to be somewhere between 75 and 100 years, by which time the artist would most likely be dead. For this reason, he also said, success in an artist's lifetime is no indicator of greatness - on the contrary. Every artist works within a void "and will never know". In this sense, if no other, the American portrait artist Alice Neel can be said to have been lucky. She can never have had any expectations, because to be a woman and an artist on the cusp of the 20th century was to cast yourself into a void. (Think of another outstanding female artist, Louise Bourgeois, born in 1911, neglected until the 1980s, venerated since the 1990s.)

Neel was born in 1900, into a middle-class Philadelphia family, at a time when, as Henry James had observed only 19 years earlier, to be a lady was to be a portrait. She worked all her long life: against the prevailing theory of what it was to be a woman, that it was not becoming for a woman to be an artist, to have a public life, that women were framed for the interior. And against fashion: she remained a figurative artist when the rest of the New York art establishment was in the grip of abstract expressionism.


Neel doesn't seem ever to have had any notion of "becoming" an artist, or even "being" an artist. She simply was an artist. Even after the mid-1970s, when she finally did become "fashionable" - helped by a major retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974 - Neel rarely took commissions. She painted for herself.

It is tempting, looking at the turbulent life of Alice Neel, to think what a terrible time she must have had. But this would be wrong. Her daughter-in-law, Ginny Neel, says, "She wasn't one to mope, she was never bitter. Alice always said she had the life she wanted and she got on with her life as she got on with her painting." It is almost a cliché to say that to be an artist you have somehow to detach yourself from the business of life, but this is what Neel did. Or, as Ginny says, "It is what painting did for her."

Queen of Hearts

from Down the Rabbit Hole by Charlie Finch

Neel met her husband, the painter Carlos Enriquez, during a brief residency at the Chester Springs Country School in Yellow Springs, Pa. His love letters are besotted with Neel, imagining her as a lost princess in the woods, "the sea empty and the skies without stars, before I stop loving you." They paint together copiously, Carlos the son of a wealthy doctor in Havana, Neel a woman of tremendous outward charm and a seething inability within to reconcile herself with others.

She takes money coldly from another suitor, marries Carlos, immediately regrets it, then moves to his family’s mansion in Cuba. Here, Alice comes as close to integration, in 1927, as at any time before her nervous breakdown in 1931. Her painting is exhibited, praised, noticed frequently in the press. She is described by a Cuban reporter as liking to redraw her work after looking at it through her legs upside down.

Yet, soon, after the birth of her daughter, Santillana, Neel flees with the girl to New York, for reasons Hoban observes "are never fully explained," soon to be joined by her husband in an Upper West Side flat. Hoban rather extensively sketches the bohemian environment of Roaring 20s New York, mentioning everyone from Lindbergh to de Kooning, before meeting her subject once again in the ring.

The reasons for Neel’s poverty are a multiple puzzlement: the aristocratic husband can’t really work, although he does illustrations for magazines; his Cuban relatives send money, but never enough; Alice goes to work at the Art Deco boutique of her friend, the writer Fanya Foss, yet she is jealous of her benefactor soon enough, and then works at a bank. Through it all Neel observes that she cannot even afford a quart of milk, yet she rather courageously paints it all. The sense is that integrated reality for Alice only exists on canvas.

This culminates in Neel’s nervous breakdown, whose details, including the swallowing of broken glass, would give even Sylvia Plath pause. Hoban tries to explain Neel’s collapse in the context of the vogue for Freud at the time (to wit, hysteria), as if Alice’s very knowledge of this new inverted way of examining existence provided the context for her collapse, and, who knows, it might be true.

from Queen of Hearts by Charlie Finch

One sympathizes with Phoebe Hoban as you reach the midpoint of Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, Hoban’s thorough examination of a very manipulative painterly genius as Alice reaches her mid-30s in the mid-1930s and negotiates relationships with Kenneth Doolittle, John Rothschild and José Negrón. Take it away, Alice --

"You know what the problem was? I was too good-looking. Too many men pursued me. I had this red golden hair. I was clever, I liked people and I liked being the life of the party."

from Alice's Tea Party by Charles Finch

Neel's life turns into a carnival of survival. Alice lived on welfare, paid $38 a month in rent, shoplifted, watched passively as one lover, Sam Brody, brutalized her nearly blind son Richard, took handouts from him and from John Rothschild, leaning on Hartley, her son with Brody, and the aforementioned Bonosky, for a vein of sanity.

In her late 40s, grown plump, her allure was nevertheless undiminished, and she painted and painted some more. Curiously, Bonosky calls these works "monsters," indicating how jarring they looked at the time, although their searing realism now shines through. Neel's palette was truly darkness visible.

From the time she painted Frank O'Hara in 1960 and was glowingly reviewed in Art News, Alice Neel was a success and her frequent reaction was not unlike Sally Field receiving the Oscar, "You like me you really like me!"

When the New York art world (and its outer precincts) falls for you, the wave of conformity is the thunderous splash of 10,000 golden lemmings leaping into the sea.

The effect is akin to your Aunt Fanny winning the lottery, moving into the Waldorf and ordering ice cream from room service three times a day every day: dull, rich and not very nutritious. It also has the paradoxical effect of making a longtime Neel fan, who has never been much interested in her as a person, question whether or not she is any good, because, you know, 50,000 Neel fans, in their unanimity, must be wrong.


Images

In association with Jeremy Lewison Limited 20 May - 26 June 2010]

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Alice Neel's Timeline

1900
January 28, 1900
United States
1926
December 26, 1926
Age 26
La Habana, Ciudad de La Habana, Cuba
1928
November 24, 1928
Age 28
New York, NY, USA
1937
1937
Age 36
New York, NY, USA
1984
October 13, 1984
Age 84
New York, New York, United States
????
????
Vermont, United States