In this portrait, Neel depicted the prominent Depression-era poet Kenneth Fearing, whom she had met soon after moving to Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in 1932. Seated centrally at a table or desk before an open book and below a gleaming light bulb, the poet appears to be at work. His likeness extends to the painting’s fantastically compressed surroundings, which glitter with details and vignettes that speak directly to Fearing’s life and work. The Sixth Avenue El train, which Fearing lived near and which he described as a source of inspiration, is pictured wrapping behind his head. The baby who rests on a small pillow beneath his wrist alludes to Fearing’s own newborn. These details are joined by a broad cast of characters and events culled from his prose: an injured soldier, a bride and groom, a scene of police brutality, and several impoverished-seeming figures, hunched over and with skull-like faces.
Much like Fearing’s poems, Neel’s portraits often depict the disenfranchised or, as in this case, those who championed them. “I always considered the human being the first premise,” she once declared of her art. “I feel his condition is a barometer of his era.” Speaking of the skeleton that emerges from Fearing’s heart, she explained, “He really sympathized with humanity. . . . His heart bled for the grief of the world.”
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)