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
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 this...is 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.