Skip to main content

The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Hard truths

by Jennifer Higgie, 7 December 2022

Self portrait, 1980 
Alice Neel
Self portrait, 1980. Alice Neel. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. © The Estate of Alice Neel

Throughout her long life, the American artist Alice Neel’s gaze was astute, unsentimental and compassionate. She documented seemingly everyone she came into contact with: her lovers, her neighbours in New York City, her children and other people’s, family, friends; couples, be they gay, straight or transgender; workers, writers, artists, students, homeless men and women, feminists, performers, poets, pregnant women, shrinks and singers – but she only rarely painted herself. ‘I tried to capture life as it went by – art records so much, the feeling, the beliefs, the changes,’ she wrote. In 1980, at the age of eighty, however, she unveiled a self portrait. Naked in the striped, blue chair where so many of her friends had sat before her, as with all of her portraits flattery played no part in her vision: her belly is swollen and her breasts sag, but her expression is direct and unabashed. One of the many startling things about this painting is its reminder of how rarely – especially in museums – we see images of women comfortable in their skin. In a culture that worships at the altar of youth, Neel looks at us, grey haired and bespectacled, unselfconscious about her lack of clothing. One hand brandishes a paintbrush, while the other holds a rag. The composition hums with life: the bright green and orange floor, the jaunty blue of the chair and the light-filled room are as vital as the woman herself. Neel worked on the picture for five years. ‘Frightful, isn’t it?’ she said in a 1983 Artforum interview. ‘I love it. At least it shows a certain revolt against everything decent.’

Although she died almost four decades ago, Neel’s muscular, vivid portraits – or, as she preferred to call them, ‘pictures of people’ – are as relevant, as moving and as influential as ever. ‘I have painted life itself right off the vine,’ she said, ‘not a copy of an old master with new figures inserted – because now is now.’ Her concern for her fellow humans – many of them migrants, working class, or ostracised because of their race, gender or sexual orientation – ran deep in her veins but it wasn’t something that she observed coolly from a distance. Despite her great capacity for joy, tragedy and hardship marred her life: she endured the death of two of her children, two suicide attempts, abusive relationships, poverty and decades of being ignored by the art establishment.

Born in 1900, the fourth of five children in an impoverished middle-class family in Pennsylvania, she liked to pronounce: ‘I am the century.’ Decades later she remembered: ‘Being born I looked around the world and its people fascinated and terrified me.’ After working as a clerk for three years and studying art at night school, she enrolled in the fine art program at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. She discovered she had the two qualities she deemed essential for the life she intended to live: ‘You know what it takes to be an artist? Hypersensitivity and the will of the devil. To never give up.’

In 1925, after a brief courtship, she married the Cuban painter, Carlos Enríquez. The couple moved to Havana, but it was a struggle for Neel to balance the demands of her husband’s disapproving parents and her work an artist. She and Carlos would walk the streets, looking for people to paint. Beggars, Havana, Cuba (1926) is an intimation of the power of her portraits to come: a study of a stooped and veiled old woman sitting beside a man who holds himself erect, it’s a portrait of pride and resilience, not deprivation.

Within a year the couple had relocated to New York City where their daughter Santillana was born in 1926; tragically, she died of diphtheria just before her first birthday. Neel soon gave birth to her second child, Isabetta, but in 1930, Carlos returned to Cuba, taking their child with him. Neel was devastated, attempted suicide and was hospitalised for a year. When she started painting again, she made countless pictures of pregnant women, mothers and children – subjects she would return to again and again. Degenerate Madonna (1930) is a nightmarish study of a mother, as pale as death with distended nipples, holding an equally pale child with a swollen head in a white robe; beside them, a spectre of another child floats in the ether. In Childbirth (1939), a naked woman lies in bed, her limbs askew, her face a blank mask of pain. Decades later, in Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978), Neel captured the blunt reality of pregnancy; Margaret is clearly uncomfortable as she perches on the chair nude, her distended belly bulging with twins. Whereas many of her later portraits throb with life and optimism, her early images are raw, shot through with grief. In 1934, she painted a still-controversial, full-frontal portrait of her estranged daughter: five-year-old Isabetta stares out at us, her hands on her hips, fierce in her nakedness – a state that, to Neel’s thinking, we can assume was far less brutal than other forms of exposure. Nakedness, for Neel, was simply an aspect of being human.

In 1932, in New York, Neel took part in six exhibitions; she also shared an apartment in Greenwich Village with her new lover, a drug addict and sailor named Kenneth Doolittle. In her 1931 portrait of him, he’s a threatening figure: his face ashen and skeletal, his eyes stern; his red tie like the slash of a knife wound against his brown suit, his walking stick gripped like a weapon. Her vision was prescient. In 1934, in a jealous rage, Doolittle destroyed around 300 of Neel’s watercolours, paintings and drawings by attacking and burning them.

1 Peggy, c. 1949. Collection of James Kenyon, Los Angeles, California. © The Estate of Alice Neel and of L.A. Louver, Venice, California. Photo Malcolm Varon. 2 Nazis Murder Jews, 1936. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © The Estate of Alice Neel and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. Both Alice Neel.

A year earlier, in 1933, Neel had been one of the first artists to be hired for the Works Progress Administration. A Government initiative headed by President Roosevelt’s advisor, Harry Hopkins, it provided employment to millions of Americans during the Great Depression. Neel, who was penniless, was remunerated for creating a painting every six weeks: the financial security was life changing. Dedicated to social realism, her work of the 1930s and 1940s focused on class struggle: she portrayed union leaders and workers, demonstrations, the poor and marginalised. In 1935, Neel became a member of the Communist Party – she was loyal to it, in varying degrees, for the rest of her life. The FBI opened a file on her in 1951 and they interviewed her twice. Neel explained that: ‘I joined the Party several times. But you know what? I’m not a bureaucrat, by nature. I hate bureaucrats. You know what I am, I’m an anarchic humanist.’ While her work grew in nuance and complexity, her rage against injustice blazes out in paintings such as Nazis Murder Jews (1936), which depicts a crowd of protestors brandishing an anti-Nazi placard and Communist flags. In Peggy (c. 1949), a haunting portrait of her neighbour, a victim of domestic abuse who later died of a drug overdose, Neel’s compassion is clear. Peggy looks beyond us, deep in herself, her arms raised, as if to fend off the sadness.

Alongside her more overtly political work, Neel was never coy in either her depictions of bodies or of her sexual relationships. In 1935, she painted herself with a new lover and lifelong supporter and friend, John Rothschild, variously naked, urinating, and anxious. In the late 1930s, she moved from Greenwich Village to the poverty-stricken Spanish Harlem where, in 1938, she painted a self portrait Alice and José: she is asleep, entwined with her boyfriend, the Puerto Rican musician José Santiago Negrón, with whom, in 1939, she had a son, Neel Santiago. (He later changed his name to Richard Neel.) Tuberculosis was rife in Harlem, and in 1940 she painted José’s brother Carlos’ painful recovery following invasive surgery (T.B. Harlem); in a later portrait, Neel depicts Carlos’ wife Margarita and their children, dignified and resolute (The Spanish Family, 1943). When José abandoned Neel three months after she had given birth, she began a relationship with the Communist photographer and filmmaker, Sam Brody. In 1941, they, too, had a son, Hartley Neel, but Brody was often absent and, when he was at home, often volatile.

The WPA funding ran out in 1943, and for over ten years Neel lived from hand-to-mouth: on welfare, occasionally teaching and accepting money from friends. Unable to afford a studio, she painted people in her small apartment, endlessly exploring what she described as her ‘over-weening interest in humanity’. She looked at faces and bodies long and hard and each brushstroke reveals something unique about her sitter: the slant of their mouth, their expression and posture. In one interview, she explained: ‘I love to see what the pressure of life does to the human psyche.’

In 1944, Brody photographed Neel, small, pale and intense, surrounded by her paintings. She is workmanlike in a checked shirt, neat hair and loafers. She sits cross-legged, her expression weary, quizzical. The painted faces around her jostle for attention; the walls seem too small, the ceiling too low to contain everything she has to say, every complex feeling she is trying to express. Her empathy with her subjects was such that, describing her painting process in historical footage shown in her grandson Andrew Neel’s 2007 documentary, she said: ‘I go so out of myself and into them that after they leave, I sometimes feel horrible. I feel like an untenanted house.’

1 Rita and Hubert, 1954. Defares Collection. © The Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner. Photo Malcolm Varon. 2 Annie Sprinkle, 1982. Private collection. © The Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner. Photo Kerry McFate. Both Alice Neel.

In postwar New York, portraiture fell out of favour and was superseded by abstract expressionism. Until her seventies, in the main, Neel rarely exhibited her work, and when she did, it was in little-known group exhibitions or left-wing galleries. As Peter C Marzio, the Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston wrote in his introduction to a major exhibition in 2010, Alice Neel: Painted Truths: ‘What was the best way for an American artist to be ignored during the middle of the twentieth century? First, to be female. Second, to paint portraits. Third, to be an independent thinker with a sharp intellect. Alice Neel filled the role like an actor straight out of central casting.’ Neel, though, was indifferent to fashion, and her paintings of people are vital chronicles, not just of individuals but of a city at particular moments of social and cultural change. Her 1954 intimate portrait of the writer Hubert Satterfield and his girlfriend Rita, for instance, captures the couple during a time when racism was rampant in American society. In 1972, she portrayed Marxist Girl, Irene Peslikis, feminist artist and active member of the women’s liberation movement, languidly reclining in a purple armchair, legs spread and armpit hair on show. A decade later, Neel’s ebullient painting of porn star and performance artist Annie Sprinkle smiling is joyful, not censorious.

1 Marxist Girl, Irene Peslikis , 1972. Daryl and Steven Roth. © The Estate of Alice Neel, David Zwirner and Victoria Miro. 2 Andy Warhol , 1970. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Timothy Collins. © The Estate of Alice Neel. Photo © 2022. Digital image Whitney Museum of American Art / License by Scala. Both Alice Neel.

In the 1960s, Neel’s renown had gained momentum and in 1970, she was commissioned to paint a portrait of Kate Millett, the author of the key feminist text Sexual Politics, for the cover of Time magazine. ‘The women’s lib movement,’ she said, ‘is giving the women the right to openly practice what I had to do in an underground way.’ Millett’s portrait made her famous. From then on, she not only painted her usual coterie of friends and neighbours, but starrier subjects: artists, writers, gallerists. She memorably portrayed Andy Warhol with his shirt off and his eyes closed; it was two years after Valerie Solanas shot him, and his scars are visible, his body frail. In 1971, a solo show of Neel’s paintings was held at her alma mater Moore College of Art and Design, Philadelphia. She was finally granted her first retrospective in 1974: at the Whitney Museum in New York. With a display of 58 paintings, she had ‘made it’ at 74 – only ten years before she died. Now, she believed, she finally ‘had the right to paint’. Thinking back over her life, she said: ‘I do not know if the truth that I have told will benefit the world in any way. I managed to do it at great cost to myself and perhaps to others. It is hard to go against the tide of one’s time, milieu and position. But at least I tried to reflect innocently the twentieth century and my feelings and perceptions as a girl and a woman.’

Alice Neel quotes are from Phoebe Hoban’s biography Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty (2010), Alice Neel: Painted Truths (2010) and Alice Neel, A Documentary (2007) directed by Andrew Neel.

© National Portrait Gallery 2024
King Edward Terrace, Parkes
Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia

Phone +61 2 6102 7000
ABN: 54 74 277 1196

The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

This website comprises and contains copyrighted materials and works. Copyright in all materials and/or works comprising or contained within this website remains with the National Portrait Gallery and other copyright owners as specified.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency