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Artists Alice Neel
Alice Neel Photo

Alice Neel

American Painter

Born: January 28, 1900 - Merion Square, Pennsylvania

Died: October 13, 1984 - New York, NY

Alice Neel Timeline

Quotes

"Nobody knows what makes good art. As an artist, when it happens, you're grateful, and then you get on with it."
Alice Neel
"I do not pose my sitters. I do not deliberate and then concoct... Before painting, when I talk to the person, they unconsciously assume their most characteristic pose, which in a way involves all their character and social standing - what the world has done to them and their retaliation."
Alice Neel
"Like Chekhov, I am a collector of souls... if I hadn't been an artist, I could have been a psychiatrist."
Alice Neel
"You should keep on painting no matter how difficult it is, because this is all part of experience, and the more experience you have, the better it is... unless it kills you, and then you know you have gone too far."
Alice Neel
"I thought you had to give up a lot for art, and you did. It required complete concentration. It also required that whatever money you had had to be put into art materials."
Alice Neel
"I like it not only to look like the person but to have their inner character as well. And then I like it to express the zeitgeist. See, I don't like something from the '60s to look like something in the '70s."
Alice Neel

"The minute I sat in front of a canvas I was happy. Because it was a world, and I could do what I liked in it. "

Alice Neel Signature

Synopsis

Alice Neel, an unshakable original, witnessed a parade of avant-garde movements from Abstract Expressionism to Conceptual Art, and refused to follow any of them. Instead, she developed a unique, expressive style of portrait painting that captured the psychology of individuals living in New York, from friends and neighbors in Spanish Harlem to celebrities. Part of what makes Neel one of the greatest American portraitists of the 20th century is her refusal of traditional categories (gender, age race, social status, etc.). She does not presume what she does not know. She observes each subject with a fresh eye. Neel's insights into the human condition never wavered, remaining direct, unflinching, and always empathetic.

Key Ideas

Types are less interesting to Neel than individuals. Andy Warhol and her neighbor's children are subjected to the same level of scrutiny, curiosity, and psychic assessment. "If I hadn't been an artist, I could have been a psychiatrist" she once said.
At a time when it was deeply unfashionable, Neel persisted in being a figure painter and a portraitist. While fully engrossed in the New York art scene and connected with its major innovators, she remained steadfast in her choice of style and subject matter, unswayed by an art world that favored abstraction. She persisting in making work that pleased her, regardless of what anyone thought. In this respect, she is very much like another great portraitist: Vincent van Gogh.
Neel was virtually unknown and had only a handful of solo shows prior to 1970. In the last two decades of her life, she had sixty. This was not purely due to the strength of her work, but to a seismic shift in the art world, which had begun to acknowledge the achievements of minorities and women.
While prolific, Neel appears to have been relatively uninterested in self-marketing. In this respect, she is different from many other successful artists of her generation, particularly women, who had to work especially hard to get noticed by the critics. Louise Nevelson, around the same age, is an especially intriguing study in contrast.

Biography

Alice Neel Photo

Childhood

Alice Hartley Neel was born into a colorful American family. Her father, George Washington Neel, was an accountant with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and hailed from a clan of steamship owners and opera singers. Her mother, Alice Concross Hartley, was a descendant of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Young Alice was the fourth of five children, with three brothers and a sister. Her oldest brother, Hartley, died of diphtheria shortly after she was born. He was only eight years old. Several months later, Neel's family moved to the small town of Colwyn, a short distance from Philadelphia, where she attended primary school and high school.

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Alice Neel Biography Continues

Important Art by Alice Neel

The below artworks are the most important by Alice Neel - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Carlos Enríquez (1926)
Artwork Images

Carlos Enríquez (1926)

Artwork description & Analysis: This early work depicts Neel's husband, the painter Carlos Enríquez, a year after they were married. The portrait displays many of the stylistic and compositional features evident in her mature work. It is clear, however, that Neel was still evolving as an artist. The face, with its distracted features, looks past the edge of the frame, as if focused on a faraway thought. The background here is much darker and the features more idealized than in Neel's later portraits (although, after all, this was her lover). Interest in psychological depth, while evident here, would be fully mastered in her later work.

The pair met in 1924 during a summer painting course in Pennsylvania. He was expelled due to lack of participation; Neel left the program with him. Enríquez returned to Havana in the fall, but the couple carried on their romance through letters. His wealthy family disapproved of Neel and his desire to be an artist (one can only imagine what they thought of her professional ambitions).

Oil on Canvas - Private Collection

Pat Whalen (1935)
Artwork Images

Pat Whalen (1935)

Artwork description & Analysis: Neel's passionate interest in left-wing politics is evident in her portrayal of Communist activist and union organizer Pat Whalen, whom she painted when she was involved with the WPA, part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Here, Whalen is portrayed as the archetypal blue-collar worker. He looks up from a copy of the Daily Worker (the official newspaper of the US communist party), his fists clenched in an expression of resolve and determination. Hallmarks of the artist's personal style are abundantly evident here: the use of flat, unmixed color, the expressive brushstroke, and particular care with the features of the sitter's face and hands that convey a deeper psychology. Neel once observed, "people are the greatest and profoundest key to an era." Here, honing in on a single subject, she articulates the intensity of a struggle that affected millions of Americans in the 1930s and beyond: the struggle for worker's rights.

Oil, Ink, and Newspaper on Canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art

Dominican Boys on 108th Street (1955)
Artwork Images

Dominican Boys on 108th Street (1955)

Artwork description & Analysis: Neel moved from Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem in 1938. The Village, she felt, was too full of pretentious bohemians. She moved in with the Puerto Rican musician Jose Santiago and began to paint many portraits of friends and neighbors. The two boys here are not like the cherubic innocents seen in many traditional portraits of children. They are nattily dressed like men, not boys, and come across as tough and streetwise. While they are Hispanic, Neel neither plays down nor stereotypes this element. Unlike many of Neel's other portraits, in which backgrounds are typically minimal, the details of the urban landscape are clearly rendered here. Neighborhood residents linger and chat on a stoop, advertising posters peel off the wall of a corner shop, and a green graffiti tag reading 'Felipe' is clearly visible. In this respect, many of her paintings from Spanish Harlem recall the aesthetics of American documentary photographers such as Berenice Abbott and Dorothea Lange. While many portraits (including Neel's) have a universal or timeless quality to them, these two boys are distinctly of a specific time and place.

Oil on Canvas - Tate Modern (London, UK)

More Alice Neel Artwork and Analysis:



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Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Alice Neel
Interactive chart with Alice Neel's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Dorothea LangeDorothea Lange
Henry SnellHenry Snell

Personal Contacts

Joseph SolmanJoseph Solman

Movements

ExpressionismExpressionism
Social RealismSocial Realism

Influences on Artist
Alice Neel
Alice Neel
Years Worked: 1926 - 1984
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Lucian FreudLucian Freud
Francis BaconFrancis Bacon
Eric FischlEric Fischl

Personal Contacts

Robert StorrRobert Storr
Frank O'HaraFrank O'Hara

Movements

Neo-ExpressionismNeo-Expressionism

Useful Resources on Alice Neel

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty Recomended resource

By Phoebe Hoban

Alice Neel

By Patricia Hills

Alice Neel

By Ann Temkin

More Interesting Books about Alice Neel
The Estate of Alice Neel Recomended resource

Comprehensive resource for information on Neel's painting, life, and legacy

Alice Neel: Portraits of Women in 1970s America

Detailed analysis of five portraits by the American Studies Resources Centre at Liverpool John Moores University

Dark Star: the paintings of Alice Neel Recomended resource

By Kathryn Hughes
The Telegraph (UK)
October 12, 2014

Haunting portrait of Andy Warhol goes on display

By Roya Nikkhah
The Telegraph (UK)
June 27, 2010

Portraits: Alice Neel's Legacy of Realism Recomended resource

By Phoebe Hoban
The New York Times
April 22, 2010

Alice Neel's Penetrating Eye

By J. S. Marcus
The Wall Street Journal
November 7, 2008

More Interesting Articles about Alice Neel
Alice Neel Recomended resource

Short excerpt from ART/New York program 32, 1990; describes Neel's place in American art and features clips from a late interview

Inside New York's Art World: Alice Neel

Extended interview with Barbaralee Diamondstein (Duke University Archives)

Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty

Phoebe Hoban reads from and discusses her biography of Neel

in pop culture

Alice Neel: Official Trailer Recomended resource

Theatrical trailer for 2007 documentary by the artist's grandson, Andrew Neel

Pull My Daisy

Short film adaptation of a Jack Kerouac stage play featuring Allen Ginsberg, Larry Rivers, and Alice Neel

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein
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