Whatever fed Alice Neel’s ferocious determination to become an artist cannot be explained by the facts of her long, hard and complex life. Those facts are full of ironies and contradictions. How did a woman prone to breakdowns in young adulthood weather decades of penury, family instability and artistic obscurity—plus abandonment by her spouse and episodes of violence by a longtime lover? In her new biography, Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, Phoebe Hoban has combined Neel’s own writings with interviews of Neel’s family, friends and artist colleagues to offer readers a convincing interpretation of Neel’s interior life: what motivated her, confounded her and fed her tenacity. Hoban also shows how Neel’s paintings (mostly portraits in oil, but also still lifes, landscapes and hundreds of works on paper) document and interpret not only the artist’s life but also much of the century in which she lived.
Ultimately, the work of Alice Neel has vindicated her efforts and given her a towering place in the pantheon of American art. That place is still rising. In 2010, a portrait by Neel sold at Christie’s for $782,500. Neel’s paintings appear in major museums, and her work has been exhibited every year since her death in 1984.
Alice Neel (1900-84), a pretty strawberry-blonde girl from Colwyn, Pa., was 20-something and aching for excitement when she left home for art school in Philadelphia. At a summer art camp, she fell in love with Carlos Enríquez, the son of a wealthy Cuban physician. They married in 1925, days before Neel’s graduation from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. Enríquez and Neel both had artistic pretensions that in retrospect seem completely warranted. They made a brief splash on the Cuban art scene, where Neel had her first solo show. But neither talent nor ambition could make their marriage work. Enríquez had been raised in luxury with servants; Neel, who came of age during the height of the women’s suffrage movement, had no desire to wait on anyone. When she refused to live in Havana, the young couple moved to New York and nearly starved. Their first child, born in November 1926, died 10 months later from diphtheria. In grief, Neel created a set of watercolors, including the poignant “After the Death of a Child” and, later, “Futility of Effort.”
Although Neel worked at a bank and Enríquez as a freelance illustrator, the couple was impoverished. When their second daughter, Isabetta, was born in 1928, Neel relied on public health care. Hoban describes Neel’s painting “Well Baby Clinic,” made after Isabetta’s birth, as “one of the least sentimental depictions of new motherhood ever created.”
A year later the stock market crashed. Enríquez left Neel in New York, took Isabetta to his sisters in Havana and ran off to the art scene in Paris. What was supposed to be a monthlong venture turned tragic: Neel never joined her husband in France, nor did she fetch their daughter from Cuba, after her own mother said she could not help Neel care for the child. “I loved Isabetta, of course I did,” Neel told a friend, “But I wanted to paint.” This conflict between family and the unrelenting demands made on an artist is the central drama of Neel’s life. Hoban treats it at length and in perspective. Few artists have succeeded at both commitments—almost none without a wife at home to manage the family.
Neel’s response to this string of enormous losses was to paint—almost without sleeping or eating. Desperate and alone, she broke down, became suicidal and was sent to a sanitarium. Psychotherapy and painting restored her health, but it took a year. She and Enríquez never divorced, and twice he tried to reconcile with Neel, but she never lived with him or Isabetta again.
During the Great Depression, Neel, like thousands of other artists, was employed by the W.P.A. easel project, which paid her for one painting every two weeks. The income allowed Neel to subsist among other artists in Greenwich Village. The Depression shaped Neel’s early work. With Ben Shahn, Jack Levine and Reginald Marsh, Neel painted unsentimental depictions of the poor and working classes, forging a style known as Social Realism. Social Realism was popular from the early 1930s until 1948, when it was superseded by Abstract Expressionism.
Neel, a sensualist, had a succession of lovers, some of whom remained her lifelong friends. She was living with Kenneth Doolittle, a labor activist, when Isabetta, 6, paid a brief visit. Neel painted a large nude portrait of her daughter as though, Hoban writes, “she were laying claim to the very essence of the girl.” That same year Doolittle, a drug addict, in a jealous rage involving another man, slashed and burned 200 of Neel’s watercolors and 60 oils (years of work), including “the Isabetta.” Neel quickly painted a duplicate; the painting was so important to her.
Hoban—author of a critically acclaimed biography of the artist Jean- Michel Basquiat—excels at her major task: integrating Neel’s personal life with her professional life. She painted through 40 years of neglect by the art world and at age 60 found success.
In 1960 Neel appeared in a beat film, along with Larry Rivers and Allen Ginsberg. Then one of Neel’s portraits of Frank O’Hara appeared in ARTnews, with a positive review of her work, which described its “haunting power.” Meanwhile, Neel’s subjects changed—from friends and neighbors in Spanish Harlem, where she lived for decades, to artists and critics. Her work was shown alongside that of Milton Avery, Philip Pearlstein, Fairfield Porter and George Segal. Neel met Andy Warhol and Henry Geldzahler, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both of whom she later painted. When her first solo show in a decade was a hit, her prices rose.
The counterculturalism of the 1960s and the feminism of the ’70s found resonance in Neel’s life and work. She was a guest on “The Johnny Carson Show” and became a minor celebrity on the college circuit. The last chapters of Hoban’s book read like an avalanche of reviews of Neel’s exhibitions and new works.
Hoban credits Neel with significant artistic innovations. Neel transformed the nude by including pregnant women, children and herself at age 80; she reinvigorated the portrait, giving it a psychological dimension and broadening its subjects to include gay and transgendered people; and, with a social conscience, she painted multicultural subjects. Neel identified deeply with her subjects. “By doing that,” she explained, “there’s a kind of something I get that other artists don’t get.”