Alice Neel’s portraits hinge on trust. A figurative painter throughout the 20th century, she created work known for its deliberate distortion, bold outlines, expressive brushwork, and imaginative use of color. Neel gained her subjects’ trust by inviting them into her home and telling them stories. “She lulled you,” recounted artist and friend Benny Andrews, whom she painted along with his wife, the photographer Mary Ellen Andrews, in 1972. Her sitters knew that while her paintings may not always be flattering, she would paint what lay beneath the surface and she would not judge. “Before painting,” Neel explained, “when I talk to the person, they unconsciously assume their most characteristic pose...what the world has done to them and their retaliation.” People would reveal themselves and she would make their struggles visible, regardless of whether they were rich or poor, famous or unknown, family or strangers, queer or straight, Black, White, Hispanic, or Asian.
Born outside of Philadelphia, Neel spent most of her life in New York. A nonconformist from the start, she was influenced by the urban realism of artists like Robert Henri, the exaggerated forms and psychological tension of German Expressionism, and the leftist political ideals of workers’ rights and a social safety net. Her subjects included Depression-era Greenwich Village regulars like poet Kenneth Fearing, whose empathy is indicated by his bleeding heart. She painted neighbors in Spanish Harlem like the young Georgie Arce, who teems with bravado and vulnerability, as well as artists, activists, mothers, children, and a series of pregnant women, a subject long ignored in the history of art.
She trusted them, too, enough to temporarily lose herself, saying, “I come under the spell of a person—out of myself into that other.” Painting was her way of connecting and coping with hardship, including the loss of her first two children and the trials of raising two more on her own. Neel trusted the viewer as well. Starting in the 1960s she often left her backgrounds unfinished, saying, “You don’t have to slavishly put the whole thing down. If you suggest it to the person, the person knows.” Finally, Neel trusted her instincts. Seeking a sense of spontaneity, she typically painted directly onto the canvas, outlining in black or blue oil paint without any preliminary sketches.
Most significantly, she painted the people and the world around her from the 1920s through the 1980s, a time during which figurative painting was devalued and marginalized, when, as Neel put it, “abstractionists pushed all the other pushcarts off the street.” For her it was the only option. “It was more than a profession,” she said. “It was even a therapy, for there I just told it as it was.” Neel’s dedication to the belief that people are worthy subjects, both as individuals and representatives of the spirit of their age, was finally rewarded in the last decade of her life, when she began to receive widespread recognition.
Romy Silver-Kohn, Research Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2021