Biography of Alice Neel, Painter of Expressionist Portraits

Alice Neel
Painter Alice Neel in her NYC studio with an unidentified family member, surrounded by paintings, New York, NY, January 5, 1979.

Getty Images 

American painter Alice Neel is best known for her expressionist portraits. Though she painted figuratively throughout the rise of abstract art in the United States, her commitment to portraiture was eventually celebrated in the 1970s, as the art world returned to an interest in the representation of the human form.

Early Life

Alice Neel was born in 1900 in Pennsylvania and grew up feeling stifled by its traditional puritan culture. After she enrolled in the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art and Design) in Philadelphia in 1921, she would never look back.

Graduating in 1925, Neel soon married and moved to New York City with her husband. In 1926, they had a daughter. Living hand to mouth, Neel and her husband struggled to earn enough money for their new family. Tragically, their daughter died in 1927. Soon after, Neel’s husband left for Paris, promising to send for Alice when he had amassed enough money to pay for her passage. He never did.

Alice Neel
Portrait of painter Alice Neel. Cynthia Macadams / Getty Images

Newly alone and reeling, Neel would attempt suicide, and ultimately landed in a mental institution. Her path to recovery was aided by her return to painting. Many of her works from the early 1930s betray the artist’s intense pain and are a reckoning with her life and circumstance.

Around the same time, Neel began to paint her now iconic portraits. Using the men and women of the artistic avant garde as sitters, she was never at a loss for a subject. Her oeuvre is at once a collection of examples of the artist’s talent, as well as a chronicle of an artistic moment in the history of New York City. This was the beginning, not the end, of Neel’s inclination towards painting the people around her, as she would go on to paint the icons of the 1960s and 70s, including Andy Warhol and critic Linda Nochlin.

Neel's Andy Warhol, 1970.  Getty Images

Her work was undiscriminating, as she found interest in the faces of those in Spanish Harlem, where she moved with a boyfriend in 1938, and where her sons Richard (born in 1939) and Hartley (born in 1941) were born. Her sincere and thoughtful engagement with her subject regardless of their color or creed was unusual for the time, and men and women of varying race, sexual orientation, and religion can be found throughout her oeuvre, all rendered with the same honest brush.

Success

For much of her career, Alice Neel ran contrary to the dominant mode of painting at the time. The 1940s and 1950s saw an intense shift in interest towards monumental abstract works by Abstract Expressionists like Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell. For this reason, Neel’s success came late in her career. She finally began to receive attention in her sixties when she joined a “Salon des Refusés”-style group exhibition, which showcased artists excluded from the Museum of Modern Art’s 1962 “Recent Painting USA: The Figure.” The ArtNews editor Thomas Hess took note of Neel at that time, and soon she was exhibiting frequently with Graham Gallery.

Alice-Neel-Frank-OHara-1960
Alice Neel (American, 1900-1984). Frank O'Hara, 1960. Oil on canvas. Gift of Hartley S. Neel. NPG.96.128. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © Estate of Alice Neel.

It was not until the mid-1970s, however, that she gained widespread appeal with several museum exhibitions including, most notably, a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974, a result of her artist friends’ (and portrait subjects’) petitioning the museum on her behalf.

In 1976 she was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a prestigious honor for Americans of literary and artistic achievement.

Alice Neel died in 1984 at the age of 84. She is considered one of the greatest 20th century American painters, an opinion that is corroborated by her frequent solo and group shows in both museums and galleries. Her estate is represented by David Zwirner Gallery.

Alice Neel
Artist Alice Neel in front of a self portrait circa 1980 in New York City. Getty Images

Work

Among Neel’s most famous works is her Self-Portrait (1980), in which she paints herself nude in her late 70s, a rare vision in art of an aging woman’s body, and an unflinching and unidealized look at herself and her career as an artist.

Her work can be identified by the strong contoured outline which defines her subjects, often painted in an unusual electric blue. With strong lines, she was known for evoking the sometimes uncomfortable psychological depth of her sitters, perhaps one of the reasons her work did not find immediate success.

Sources

  • Alice Neel biography. David Zwirner. https://www.davidzwirner.com/artists/alice-neel/biography. Published 2008.
  • Crehan H. Introducing the Portraits of Alice Neel. ARTnews. http://www.artnews.com/2015/02/27/the-risk-taking-portraitist-of-the-upper-west-side-on-alice-neels-tense-paintings/. Published 1962.
  • Fine E. Women And Art. Montclair, NJ: Allanheld & Schram; 1978: 203-205.
  • Rubinstein C. American Women Artists. New York: Avon; 1982: 381-385.