Alice Neel’s daring portraits of people and places are among the most insightful images in 20th-century American art. This exhibition is the first full-scale examination of her inspiring and provocative work and marks the centennial of the artist’s birth. Organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it covers nearly 60 years of work and features more than 100 paintings and works on paper, many of which have never been previously exhibited in a museum.
Born in suburban Philadelphia, Neel (1900–1984) led a rich and colorful life filled with friends, lovers, family, fellow artists, and a strong sense of community and social activism. She became a painter at a time when few women’s lives reached beyond the traditional family sphere. After graduating from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art and Design), Neel spent a year in Havana before moving to New York City with her husband in 1927. She remained there for the rest of her life. In the 1930s, her subjects included many Greenwich Village poets and writers, friends, and family.
Neel’s watercolors and paintings convey individual psychology and social situations with a boldly personal approach that has roots in the expressionistic works of artists as varied as Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and Diego Rivera. During the Great Depression while she was employed by the Works Progress Administration, Neel painted scenes of the city street that reflected her trenchant concern for the dispossessed: striking workers, impoverished families, and the homeless. Among the highlights of the exhibition is a rare presentation of works from the Depression era.
During the postwar era, when the tide of the art world had turned toward abstraction, Neel remained resolutely committed to the representation of the human figure. She was steadfast in depicting the world around her with compassion, acuity, and freedom. In her works she openly displayed her empathy for her subjects–from her young sons and her aging mother to left-wing activists. Paintings of her neighbors in Spanish Harlem employ humor and insight to great effect, in portraits that are both tender and unforgiving. These canvases range from close likeness to unconventional compositions that Neel invented from memory.
In the early 1960s, Neel received her first recognition outside a small circle of admirers. Her astounding emergence, late in life, corresponded with the dawning of the women’s movement and with the art world’s reawakened interest in the human figure. Neel’s work of the next two decades reflects her increasing importance in the larger art world. Her portraits of fellow artists, including Andy Warhol, Frank O’Hara, and Faith Ringgold, document a professional world in which she was suddenly a seemingly improbable star. It was during these years that Neel perfected the style for which she is now best remembered: large-scale portraits in the realist tradition of Thomas Eakins and Robert Henri, but newly inventive and unforgettably direct.
With the new century comes a reevaluation of the modernist canon, which often emphasized abstraction at the expense of adventurous figurative artists. Neel’s revolutionary portraits such as the defiant pose of her young daughter Isabetta, the poignant picture of Andy Warhol, and her own self-portrait at the age of 80 remain audacious images today. Alice Neel marks an opportune moment for the first full appraisal of an important American artist. The current resurgence of portraiture as a vibrant field for both veteran and emerging artists confirms Neel’s ongoing legacy.
Please note: Several works in this exhibition depict adult subject matter, including nudity. Before entering with children, visitors may wish to preview the exhibition or the catalogue.