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Biography from The Columbus Museum-Georgia:
Alice Neel was born in 1900 outside of Philadelphia. Immediately following high school, she attended her first art classes at night while employed as a secretary. Neel progressed at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women where she won prizes in several portrait classes. Upon graduation, she embarked upon a career as an artist, but her personal relationships define much of this early phase of her career.
She married a fellow artist, Carlos Enríquez, and moved to Cuba where they lived at his family’s home. After the birth and death of her first child, she became estranged from her husband, and soon she began an affair with Kenneth Doolittle (a sailor who later destroyed over 300 pieces of her work). Her relationships were an integral faction of her life, although the weight of them on her art is yet fully to be explored. In addition, the births and death of her children and her own precarious mental state are definitive factors in her life and art.(1)
Neel exhibited in various independent and well-supported exhibitions in New York, including her first one-person show in 1938. She was also fortunate to receive a steady government paycheck through the WPA during the 1930s. By this time Neel’s painting explored and focused on impassioned portraiture as she portrayed the people around her, from liberal writers and artists in Spanish Harlem, to family, friends, critics and other members of the art scene in New York. Such direct and psychologically charged portraiture became her signature. As most critics have discovered, “…Neel seems to detect a hidden weakness in her sitters which she drags out, yelping, into the clear glare of day.”(2)
Neel painted portraits during her entire career. Her work is not defined easily and classifying it with any pre-determined art historical category seems futile. As she herself stated, “I never followed any school. I never imitated any artist. I never did any of that. I believe what I am is a humanist. That’s the way I see the world, and that is what I paint.”(3) She maintained that “life” was the theme of her work and that her desire to paint portraits evolved from her belief that contemporary artists were doing portraits without life. She believed she was describing the barbarity of life, in other words, the difficulty of living, in paintings.(4) Her commissioned portraits were always able to capture the essence of the sitter, or sitters, as she did many group sittings of two or more figures. Nevertheless, her personal portraits seem to have allowed her to establish a dialogue with the model or models that transcend the merely reflective. Rather than project any personal agenda onto her sitters, Neel’s figures exude feeling through their posture, body language, costumes, and especially their faces.
1. For biographical information see Patricia Hills, Alice Neel (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983); Pamela Allara, Pictures of People: Alice Neel’s American Portrait Gallery (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998).
2. Lawrence Campbell, Reviews and Previews: Alice Neel,” Artnews 69 (November 1970), 24. Quoted in Ann Temkin, editor, Alice Neel (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000), 172.
3. Eleanor Munro, Originals: American Women Artists (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 128.
4. Ibid, 130.
Submitted by the Staff of the Columbus Museum