Capturing something real

Jennifer Schneider

A Nazi concentration camp survivor selling Fuller brushes door-to-door. Andy Warhol. A dead father. What do these people have in common? All were immortalized in paintings by Alice Neel.

Born in suburban Philadelphia at the turn of the 20 century, Neel developed into one of the most prominent female artists of her generation. Her audacious portraits use vibrant colors, piercing eyes and awkward poses to capture the human soul.

Although Neel graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1925, public recognition came late in her career. She spent much of her life out of the public eye, raising three children in East Harlem and painting anyone who captured her attention.

An avid social rights activist, Neel worked for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression and became the subject of an FBI investigation during the McCarthy era. (Rumor has it FBI officials turned down her offer to paint their portraits). But even though her political views and personal life were deeply intertwined, she did not use her artwork to promote social change.

Never afraid to take risks, Neel painted images that many early contemporaries found inappropriate. In addition to still lives and street scenes, her watercolors and oil paintings reveal nude portraits of her prepubescent daughter and a woman pregnant with twins, two African American sisters growing up in Spanish Harlem and a gay couple lounging in chairs.

“She took chances… was very committed to being an artist,” says Walker Art Center curator Kemi Ilesanmi. “That’s why many of those images still carry a charge today.”

Indeed, Neel’s paintings remain as relevant today as they did fifty years ago. A self-proclaimed psychological painter, her artwork shows real people with real emotions “Alice is really about capturing the real personality of the person, delving beneath the facade,” says Ilesanmi.

Because her focus was people with genuine emotions, Neel remained faithful to figurative art even when the winds blew the rest of the art world toward abstraction. But it was not until the 1960s, when a renewed interest in figurative art joined forces with the women’s movement and a heightened social conscious, that Neel became an important public figure.

The counterculture embraced her unconventional ideas, and Neel became a well-respected member of the growing art community on the East coast. She appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, was photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe and costarred with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac in the quintessential beat film, Pull My Daisy.

But despite these other endeavors, it was Neel’s startling, intimate portraits that guaranteed her a spot in the history books. “The wonderful thing about her work is that she is very much an painter’s painter,” Ilesanmi says. “She’s someone who a lot of artists know and pay attention to and feel inspired by today.”