Alice Neel was one of the most important portrait artists of the 20th century. Her early paintings often showed hollow-eyed faces that belonged to the oppressed. Reflecting a series of tragedies: the death of her infant daughter; abandonment by her husband; and the loss of her second daughter, who was taken to Cuba by her husband never to return, her early works featured distorted, expressionistic images of couples, mothers, and children. Her style softened after she moved from Philadelphia to New York in 1932 when she specialized in frank, realistic, and revealing images of the people she knew.
Neel grew up in a small Pennsylvania town that had no artists or writers. She won a scholarship to the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and graduated at age 25. After her husband left and took away her daughter, Neel suffered a breakdown. When she recovered, she worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Over the next two decades she lived in poverty, had destructive relationships with men, and had two more children, both sons.
Her art first received attention in the 1950s and early 1960s with the revival of figurative painting. However, her penetrating and haunting portraits were considered too subjective for the world of abstract art that was dominant at that time. She was ignored and neglected by art critics until the 1970s and the Woman’s Movement. Finally, Neel’s art was appreciated and was widely exhibited, and she was recognized as an important artist. Her 1973 oil painting of the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin shows Nochlin affectionately sitting next to her little daughter, Daisy. Nochlin’s 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” helped to start feminist art history.
In 1974, Neel had a retrospective of her work at the Whitney Museum. The American Academy & Institute of Arts and Letters elected Neel in 1976. She had exhibitions in London, Philadelphia, and Sweden. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Hirshhorn Museum, Metropolitan Museum, MOCA, Tate Modern, Whitney Museum, and numerous others.