Alice Neel: Artist Portrait

Alice Neel

Born 1900. Died 1984.

Works by Alice Neel at Sotheby's

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Alice Neel Biography

Alice Neel was a leading American figurative painter, whose career spanned from the 1920s to the 1980s. Her deeply penetrating portraits uniquely depict the internal character and psychology of her subjects, exploring issues of identity, social and racial inequality, gender and trauma. Neel’s free approach to form and color and her experimental handling of line, amplified her renderings of the internal emotional existence of her subjects. She often turned to family and friends as models in addition to artists, cabaret singers, students, salesmen, psychologists and an array of anonymous strangers, thus creating a broad, dynamic portrait of New York City in the 20th century.

Neel was born in 1900 in Merlon Square, Pennsylvania, to a working-class family who did not encourage her artistic interests. She persisted and insisted, enrolling in the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art and Design), where she pursued her interest in the Ashcan School of Realism. Neel and her husband Carlos Enríquez lost their first daughter Santillana just before her first birthday; after the birth of their second child Isabetta, Enríquez returned to his native Cuba with their daughter without Neel’s consent. The sequence of losses both pushed Neel into severe depression, but allowed for new insights and understanding of trauma and healing, which she accessed in her portraiture at a heightened level. During the Depression years, Neel secured work through the Works Progress Administration, and her portraits soon filled with the images of the Communist party members with whom she associated. Often focusing on the female nude, Neel created shrewd, honest portraits that questioned the standards of the female form. She remained experimental and ever-changing throughout her career, evolving her approach to painting even in her last works.

From the late 1960s on, Neel’s works have served as icons of the women’s movement. Five years before Neel’s death, President Carter presented her with a National Women’s Caucus for Art award for outstanding achievement. The Whitney Museum of American Art organized a retrospective of her work in 1974, and a posthumous one in 2000. A sprawling survey of her career, showcasing 70 paintings, has circulated at major museums in Europe since 2016 in Helsinki, The Hague, Arles, and Hamburg. Her work is included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; the Metropolitan Museum, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the National Gallery, Washington, DC; the Tate Modern, London; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and many other major institutions.

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Museums with Works by Alice Neel

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Artist Image: 2014 New York Post