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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Alice Neel

Alice Neel Self-portrait, 1980
In studying the lives and works of hundreds of artists over the years, the one subject virtually all of them share is themselves. I've never done the numerical research, but my feeling is that artists, as a whole, paint an average of  between five and ten self-portraits over the course of their careers. I'm about average, not counting sketches and drawings, I've painted around five and currently have plans to do another before I die. That makes Alice Neel unique (especially for a portrait painter). Having begun to paint at around the age of twenty-six, she waited fifty-four years to do her first and only self-portrait at the age of eighty. Moreover, if that wasn't enough, she painted herself nude (top). The portrait is every bit as startling (some would also say, disturbing) as one might expect under the circumstances.
Carlos Enriquez, 1926, Alice Neel
Alice Neel was born in 1900 in rural Pennsylvania where she grew up. During the First World War, she worked as a civil-service clerk while taking night classes in art at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, choosing an all-girls school to avoid the distraction of the opposite sex. She began painting in 1925, the same year she married Carlos Enriquez (left), a wealthy Cuban playboy. They moved to Havana where she began painting and gave birth to a daughter, Santillana. There too, she fell in with the burgeoning Cuban intellectual elite where she developed an astute political consciousness that was to permeate her life's work.
Well Baby Clinic, 1928, Alice Neel
Santillana died of diphtheria shortly before her first birthday. After her daughter's death, Alice returned to the U.S. to live with her parents, whereupon she discovered she was once more pregnant, giving birth to a second daughter, Isabetta in 1928. Her painting from the same year, Well Baby Clinic (above), was executed from memory, depicting a bleak atmosphere not far removed from an insane asylum. Carlos joined her and they moved to New York until 1930 when Carlos took his daughter and returned to Cuba. Having lost two children, Alice Neel's work took on a darker tone, embracing motherhood, but with stark expressionism which formed the basis of her style from that point on. Life was not easy in Depression era New York, especially for a deserted woman, especially if she happens to be an artist. Alice suffered a severe nervous breakdown, was briefly hospitalized (sent to an asylum). She tried to take her own life, and was then confined to a hospital suicide ward.
Kate Millet, 1970, Alice Neel
Alice was released in 1931, returned home for a time, then returned to New York, determined to make a name for herself as a portrait artist. She painted her friends and neighbors, as well as various New York public figures. She flirted with the Communist party, then in 1933 joined the WPA. Shortly before the Second World War, Alice had two sons (Richard and Hartley) by two different lovers. For the next ten years she painted little, a single mother eking out a living doing illustrations for a Communist magazine, Masses and Mainstreams, though she did have her first solo show in 1944. During the 1950s, her figural work was quite out of step with mainstream Abstract Expressionism. However, with dawn of the feminist movement of the 60s, Neel found her art in demand, painting a number of New York political and cultural leaders, including a Time magazine cover portrait of the radical feminist Kate Millet (left).
Alice Neel, 1984, Robert Mapplethorpe
During the following years, Alice Neel's work won critical acclaim with numerous exhibitions and awards, having been a feminist before feminism was in vogue, she became the official feminist artist, attaining a degree of financial security and access to the rich and famous who populate her many portraits. It was during this era she managed to find time to finally do her own portrait. And, having encouraged many of her portrait subjects to pose nude (some did, some didn't) she felt obliged to painter herself in the same state. Alice died in 1984. Her grandson, Andrew Neel, made a documentary featuring her life and numerous works, which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Festival. In 1984, shortly before he death, Alice posed for a portrait by another artist, the controversial photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. She insisted upon posing with her mouth open, her eyes shut, claiming she wanted to see what she would look like when she was dead.


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