American painter and printmaker. She graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1925 and settled in New York with her husband, the Cuban artist Carlos Enríquez. After the death of their first daughter from diphtheria and the break-up of the marriage, Neel suffered a nervous breakdown, and her career was not fully launched until the 1930s. She was supported by the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) in 1933 and from 1935 until the early 1940s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), but there was little critical or financial support for her work until the 1960s. Although she never remarried, she had two sons by different fathers; she often painted them and, eventually, their wives and children.
Alice Neel stubbornly pursued a career as a figurative painter when trends and tastes favoured abstraction. She painted still-lifes, landscapes and genre scenes, but her favourite subject-matter was people—members of her own family, friends, acquaintances and even those strangers whose appearance and character intrigued her. Working directly on the canvas and rarely giving her surfaces a completely finished look, Neel used expressive distortion, a brilliant colour sense and inventive compositions to record the physiognomy and body language of her subjects. Because they were not commissioned portraits, Neel was free to express her own views about the sitter, many of whom were poor or in situations of stress, for example T. B. Harlem (1940; Washington, DC, N. Mus. Women A.), which shows a man recovering from an operation.
Neel’s vividly characterized portraits of New York artists and intellectuals such as Robert Smithson (1962; priv. col., see 1979 exh. cat., no. 6), Andy Warhol (1970; New York, Whitney) and Henry Geldzahler (1967; New York, MOMA) finally brought her fiercely idiosyncratic style to the attention of a wider public. The success of Pop art and Photorealism in the 1960s and 1970s also made Neel’s work more acceptable. A small retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1974 led to other exhibitions and national awards in the last decade of her life. She was a marvellous public speaker, as unconventional and pungent with words as she was with paint, and spoke more eloquently about her paintings than most of her critics.
Neel sold little of her work because her sitters could rarely afford to buy their own portraits, and few collectors found her strongly characterized images of unknown people appealing. Thus she still owned most of her work at her death. It constitutes both the personal biography of an artist with a voracious curiosity about people and a moving record of American character in the 20th century.
Ann Sutherland Harris
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press