Alice Neel was one of the most important portrait artists of the 20th century. She is best known for her extraordinary, psychologically acute portraits of celebrities, everyday people, friends, and self-portraits. She used distorted drawing and strong color to reveal the character of her subjects.
Her early paintings often showed hollow-eyed faces that belonged to the oppressed. Reflecting a series of tragedies: the death of an infant daughter; abandonment by her Cuban husband, artist Carlos Enriquez; and the loss of her second daughter, taken to Cuba by Enriquez to be raised by his sisters, 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. Describing herself as “a collector of souls,” she created frank and realistic images of people in the tradition of social realism, prominent in Greenwich Village at this time.
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) and moved to Spanish Harlem, an affordable neighborhood and home to African Americans and migrating Puerto Ricans with whom she felt a strong bond. Over the next two decades she lived in poverty, had destructive relationships with men, and raised two sons – by two other men – alone.
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 mostly male-dominated abstract painting. Neel’s interest always remained focused on the portrayal of people in a style of richly colored virtuosity.
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 of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tate Modern, Whitney Museum of American Art, and numerous others.