Blind Contour Drawing #20 – “The Spanish Family” Alice Neel, 1943
Alice Neel was born in Pennsylvania in 1900. Alice was the fourth of five children and was raised into a conservative middle-class family. Opportunities were limited for women and she remembers her mother had once said, “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, you’re only a girl.”
After high school and while working an office job, she attended evening art classes in Philadelphia. In 1921, Neel enrolled in the Fine Art program at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. She rejected impressionism, the popular style at the time, and instead embraced the Ashcan School of Realism.
During her school years, she met and later married Cuban artist Carlos Enriquez, son of prominent family in Havana. The couple lived between Cuba and New York, both painting and exhibiting. They had their first daughter in 1926, who died a year later of diphtheria. In 1928, Neel gave birth to their second daughter, Isabella. Enriquez returned to Havana with Isabella. While separated from her daughter and husband, Neel suffered emotional trauma and attempted suicide. She was hospitalized for almost a year. She never divorced her husband but remained separated from him and her daughter visited her periodically throughout her lifetime.
In 1932 she returned to Greenwich Village with her lover, Kenneth Doolittle. She enrolled in the Public Works Art Project and received a wage. She had a tormentous relationship with the PWAP because of her controversial style and subject matter. In a rage, Doolittle burnt more than three hundred of Neel’s drawings and watercolors and slashed more than fifty oil paintings at their apartment on Cornelia Street. Her friend, John Rothschild, helped her leave and he wanted to move in with her but she refused. Later that year, she met Jose Santiago Negron, a nightclub singer. He left his wife and child and moved in with Neel. The couple moved to the Spanish (East Harlem), a place that had a huge influence on her work.
In 1938 she exhibited 16 paintings in her first solo exhibition in New York City at Contemporary Arts. The following year she gave birth to a son and Negron left her. In 1939, she met Sam Brody, a photographer and filmmaker. They lived on and off together for two decades and had a son in 1941. Neel lived in Spanish Harlem for 20 years and raised her two boys there. She continued to paint even though she lived on public assistance.
Neel was never a member of the Communist Party but was a believer in socialism and sympathetic to many of the Communist ideals. She attended several protests at major art galleries for the treatment of minorities and the underrepresentation of female artists.
Neel persisted in being a figure painter and a portraitist during her career even though it was unpopular. During her lifetime, the New York scene was bursting with the new energy of abstraction but she remained faithful to her style and subject matter. She created a unique, expressive style of portrait painting that captured the psychology, sociology and personality of those living in New York, from friends and neighbors in Spanish Harlem to celebrities.
Her determination to continue to create work that pleased her finally paid off as she slowly started to gain recognition and awards for her work in the 1960’s. Prior to this time, she was virtually unknown and had only a handful of solo shows. However in the last two decades of her life, she had sixty. This was due not only to the strength of her work, but to the emerging Feminist Art movement that began to shine a light on the achievements of women artists.
Neel was an original, witnessing many art movements in her lifetime and refusing to follow any of them. She has been hailed one of the greatest portraitists of the last century. Her keen observation of each of her subjects reveals insights into the human condition and conveys an emotional intensity that creates an incredibly powerful body of work.
Born: 1900, Pennsylvania
Died: 1984, New York