Alice Neel, Vitreous painting on glass, 8 x 10”
Alice Neel endured an extraordinarily difficult life to become one of the century's most powerful portrait painters. Raised in rural Pennsylvania, Neel turned her back on middle-class society by becoming a professional artist, an ardent political activist, and a resident of a poor urban neighborhood. She was graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art) in 1925 and fell in love with the Cuban painter Carlos Enríquez. They married and moved to Havana, where their daughter Santillana was born. In 1927 they settled in New York City and Neel's life began to fall apart. First, Santillana died of diphtheria; then Enríquez suddenly moved to Paris, taking their second daughter with him. In 1930-31 Neel suffered a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide, and was hospitalized for six months. Soon after her release, Neel began living with a drug-addicted man who slashed 60 of her paintings. Two subsequent relationships-with the Puerto Rican guitarist José Santiago and the Russian-born filmmaker Sam Brody, were also volatile.
Neel's unconventional life parallels the approach she took toward portraiture. Her images-whether of Nobel laureates, art world celebrities, relatives, or neighbors-are unfailingly, often disconcertingly, honest. It is hard to imagine any other painter creating such confrontational male nudes or such a startling self-portrait, wearing nothing but her eyeglasses, at the age of 81. Even when Neel's sitters are clothed, they seem naked given the artist's uncanny ability to reveal their personalities.
Because Neel never adjusted her painting style to fit prevailing art world fashions, her early work received limited attention. During the last decades of her life, however, Neel achieved great success. Her many honors included the National Women's Caucus for Art outstanding achievement award, which President Jimmy Carter presented to her in 1979.
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