Alice Neel. Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews. 1972. Oil on canvas, 60 x 50" (152.2 x 127 cm). Gift of Agnes Gund, Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund, Arnold A. Saltzman Fund, and Larry Aldrich Foundation Fund (by exchange)

“I come under the spell of a person—out of myself into that other.”

Alice Neel

Alice Neel’s portraits hinge on trust. A figurative painter throughout the 20th century, she created work known for its deliberate distortion, bold outlines, expressive brushwork, and imaginative use of color. Neel gained her subjects’ trust by inviting them into her home and telling them stories. “She lulled you,” recounted artist and friend Benny Andrews, whom she painted along with his wife, the photographer Mary Ellen Andrews, in 1972.1 Her sitters knew that while her paintings may not always be flattering, she would paint what lay beneath the surface and she would not judge. “Before painting,” Neel explained, “when I talk to the person, they unconsciously assume their most characteristic pose...what the world has done to them and their retaliation.”2 People would reveal themselves and she would make their struggles visible, regardless of whether they were rich or poor, famous or unknown, family or strangers, queer or straight, Black, White, Hispanic, or Asian.

Born outside of Philadelphia, Neel spent most of her life in New York. A nonconformist from the start, she was influenced by the urban realism of artists like Robert Henri, the exaggerated forms and psychological tension of German Expressionism, and the leftist political ideals of workers’ rights and a social safety net. Her subjects included Depression-era Greenwich Village regulars like poet Kenneth Fearing, whose empathy is indicated by his bleeding heart. She painted neighbors in Spanish Harlem like the young Georgie Arce, who teems with bravado and vulnerability, as well as artists, activists, mothers, children, and a series of pregnant women, a subject long ignored in the history of art.

She trusted them, too, enough to temporarily lose herself, saying, “I come under the spell of a person—out of myself into that other.”3 Painting was her way of connecting and coping with hardship, including the loss of her first two children and the trials of raising two more on her own. Neel trusted the viewer as well. Starting in the 1960s she often left her backgrounds unfinished, saying, “You don’t have to slavishly put the whole thing down. If you suggest it to the person, the person knows.”4 Finally, Neel trusted her instincts. Seeking a sense of spontaneity, she typically painted directly onto the canvas, outlining in black or blue oil paint without any preliminary sketches.

Most significantly, she painted the people and the world around her from the 1920s through the 1980s, a time during which figurative painting was devalued and marginalized, when, as Neel put it, “abstractionists pushed all the other pushcarts off the street.”5 For her it was the only option. “It was more than a profession,” she said. “It was even a therapy, for there I just told it as it was.”6 Neel’s dedication to the belief that people are worthy subjects, both as individuals and representatives of the spirit of their age, was finally rewarded in the last decade of her life, when she began to receive widespread recognition.

Romy Silver-Kohn, Research Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2021

  1. Benny Andrews participating in “Undergoing Scrutiny: Sitting for Alice Neel,” in Ann Temkin ed. Alice Neel. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2000, p. 73.

  2. Alice Neel quoted in Patricia Hills, “Alice Neel: the Work, the Words, the Woman,” Alice Neel. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1983, p. 189-90.

  3. Ibid., p. 193.

  4. Alice Neel in Cindy Nemser, Art Talk: Conversations with 12 Women Artists. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975, p. 119.

  5. Neel, “Alice by Alice,” in Hills, ed., Alice Neel. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1983, p. 80.

  6. Nemser, p. 123.

Wikipedia entry
Alice Neel (January 28, 1900 – October 13, 1984) was an American visual artist, who was known for her portraits depicting friends, family, lovers, poets, artists, and strangers. Her career spanned from the 1920s to 1980s. Her paintings have an expressionistic use of line and color, psychological acumen, and emotional intensity. She pursued a career as a figurative painter during a period when abstraction was favored, and she did not begin to gain critical praise for her work until the 1960s.Her work contradicts and challenges the traditional and objectified nude depictions of women by her male predecessors. This is done by depicting women through a female gaze, illustrating them as being consciously aware of the objectification by men and the demoralizing effects of the male gaze.Neel was called "one of the greatest portrait artists of the 20th century" by Barry Walker, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which organized a retrospective of her work in 2010.
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Artist, Painter, Photographer, Sculptor
Alice Neel, Alice Hartley Neel
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


6 works online



  • MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art Flexibound, 408 pages
  • MoMA Now: Highlights from The Museum of Modern Art—Ninetieth Anniversary Edition Hardcover, 424 pages
  • Among Others: Blackness at MoMA Hardcover, 488 pages

If you would like to reproduce an image of a work of art in MoMA’s collection, or an image of a MoMA publication or archival material (including installation views, checklists, and press releases), please contact Art Resource (publication in North America) or Scala Archives (publication in all other geographic locations).

MoMA licenses archival audio and select out of copyright film clips from our film collection. At this time, MoMA produced video cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. All requests to license archival audio or out of copyright film clips should be addressed to Scala Archives at [email protected]. Motion picture film stills cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. For access to motion picture film stills for research purposes, please contact the Film Study Center at [email protected]. For more information about film loans and our Circulating Film and Video Library, please visit

If you would like to reproduce text from a MoMA publication, please email [email protected]. If you would like to publish text from MoMA’s archival materials, please fill out this permission form and send to [email protected].


This record is a work in progress. If you have additional information or spotted an error, please send feedback to [email protected].