Exploring the life and meaning behind American artist Alice Neel's paintings
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The Life & Works of Alice Neel

Delve deep into the mind of the American artist, whose body of work demonstrates the intertwining of art and life, capturing what the eyes see and what the heart feels
Reading time 4 minutes

 

AMERICAN ARTIST Alice Neel (1900-1984) lived and worked through some of the greatest social and political battles of the 20th century, creating along the way a an oeuvre of spellbindingly disturbing, yet honest portraits that chronicle the evolution of attitudes towards gender and ethnicity.

Running until 17 September, the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles in southern France throws the spotlight on 71 works in an exhibition conceived by leading Alice Neel expert Jeremy Lewison.

He tells us more about the artist who once said, “It takes a lot of courage in life to tell it how it is.”

 

Right: 'Ginny and Elizabeth', 1975, oil on canvas, 106.7x76.2cm.

Her social commitment was very strong, which inevitably slowed her career. How does this involvement translate in her work?

Throughout her life, Neel produced often unflattering portraits of women. As early as the 1930s, she started painting female nudes. Up until then, it was a territory that was dominated by male artists. Her frontal nudes were done without any seductive aim – these are harsh paintings to contemplate. 

In the ’60s, she began painting portraits of pregnant women, mothers and children, and was an important figure for feminism and female artists. She depicted women in their daily work, whereas the norm in the 19th century was to represent scenes of the bourgeoisie or aristocratic women surrounded by their offspring, whose care was entrusted to nurses. Neel, on the contrary, showed the world of women and children who worked to ensure their existence.

 

At what point in her life did her career as an artist really take shape?

She was always an artist and, at a time when few women artists who became mothers continued to work, Neel integrated her artistic work with her family obligations. Thus, when her children were very young, she found a job in a nursery that her children were able to attend. Then, when they started school, she started her artistic practice full-time again. In the ’30s, she was employed by the Works Progress Administration – this was when she produced urban landscapes. But her career really took shape in the ’60s after gaining strength from some early commercial success. 

In the ’30s, Neel settled in Greenwich Village, then in Spanish Harlem, which were then poor districts of Manhattan. Then, in the ’60s, she settled on the Upper West Side. How does her collection of portraits evolve in accordance with this very strong cartographic identity of New York?

In Greenwich Village, she was associated with the Communist representatives and painted the leaders of this party, such as Pat Whalen (in 1935), whose portrait is not included in the exhibition, but remains a very important painting. She painted Communist militants, but also intellectuals and the poor in Greenwich Village. 

In Spanish Harlem, she was surrounded by Puerto Rican, Hispanic and black immigrants. At a time of segregation, she painted Alvin Simon and Hubert Satterfield, among other people: no type of discrimination had any justification in her eyes. She lived a modest life in a poor neighbourhood, and brought to light the poverty in which these immigrants suffered. 

On the Upper West Side, she joined the artistic and intellectual community. Other subjects were thus revealed in her paintings. A whole new range of personalities were offered up to her gaze: museum curators, art critics, gallery owners, artists. They were like magic words that would allow her paintings to appear on the walls of exhibitions.

Above: 'Hartley', 1966, oil on canvas, 127x91.5cm. 

"At a time when few women artists who became mothers continued to work, Neel integrated her artistic work with her family obligations."

– Jeremy Lewison, Alice Neel expert

This article first appeared in the June/July 2017 issue of L'Officiel Singapore (out now on Magzter and newsstands). Click here to subscribe.

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