Alice Neel was born in 1900 in Merion Square, Pennsylvania.  She was the daughter of a proper middle-class family that she described as "anti-bohemian".  She studied at what was then known as the Philadelphia School for Design for Women now known as the Moore College of Art. "A school where rich girls went before they got married", she said.  There she received a thorough, conventional grounding in art techniques.

When an acquaintance once said that she painted "like a man", her response was, "No, I don't paint like a man; but I don't paint like they expect a woman to paint."  Actually this extraordinary woman spent a lifetime painting the unexpected, with cheerful disregard for the prevailing fashions and designs.

From the beginning Alice was a portrait artist, although she preferred to call herself a "people painter" because she felt that people who painted portraits were looked down upon.  Her assessment actually proved correct throughout most of her career.  Just at the point when she should have been in her prime...the 1940s and 1950s...abstraction had completely taken over the art world.  A painter of figures was out of fashion and remained so for at least twenty years.  I wasn't until 1974, at the age of seventy-four, that Neel had her first important show at the Whitney Museum in New York.  Her show included some fifteen pictures that had not previously been "off the shelf".  Alice waited a long time to hear an important critic name her as the best portrait painter of the 20th century, and then she herself did not contradict that statement.  The pictures have transcended portrait status in the sense of recording someone's looks.  They are major paintings that happen to have people as their subjects.

Her personal life was conventional up to the point that her techniques were conventional, back when she was going to art school.  It soon changed drastically.  She referred to the men who played important roles in her life by stereotype, rather than by their name.  Upon leaving art school, she married "the Cuban" and moved to Havana, where she continued to paint and had her first exhibition in 1926.  The Cuban marriage eventually broke up, after which Alice returned to New York and worked on the W.P.A. Art Project (the government-sponsored Depression program to help support artists).  Along the way she rook up with "Sailor Moon R|the sailor]", with whom she lived until he cut up and burned all of her work.  She said, "You know how men are, they get jealous, they're possessive".  There was also "the Puerto Rican singer".  From these liaisons came four children, one of whom died in infancy.  Later there would be several grandchildren, who became favorite subjects for Neel's art.

In 1931 she attempted suicide and ended up at the Dr. Ludlum's Sanatorium, where she recovered sufficiently to be sent home.  In 1959 she appeared in Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank's film, Pull My Daisy.  In 1971 she was awarded  with an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from her alma mater Moore College of Art

Obviously, Alice Neel was an original, an exceptionally self-directed artist and human being.  Neither her personal life or her career was modeled after any other examples, nor did she follow anything but her own inclinations.  "When they asked me if I had influences I said I never copy anybody.  I never did, because I feel that the most important thing about art and in art...and I tell students to find your own road."  Her Self-Portrait, painted in 1980, four years before she died in New York City, depicts the naked body of an eighty year old woman sitting on a black and white striped couch, with everything sagging.  This portrait can be found at the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian Institute.

Source:  Gilbert, Rita. Living With Art. : , 1998.

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