Arguably one of the most original and daring portraitists of our century, Alice Neel's unique sensibility was cultivated during the two decades she lived in New York's Spanish Harlem. Drawn to Hispanic culture – a direct departure from her white middle class upbringing in Philadelphia – Neel married Carlos Enrique, a Cuban artist with whom she moved to New York. By 1938, she had grown tired of the Bohemian life of Greenwich Village and moved with her then lover José Santiago to Spanish Harlem, stating that: “I got sick of the Village. I thought it was degenerating. I moved up to Spanish Harlem with [Jose]. You know what I thought I’d find there? More truth; there was more truth in Spanish Harlem. And in a sense, there is more truth in the ghettos now than there is in all these festival places.”(Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art [and traveling], Alice Neel, 2000, p. 43). Like her paintings, Neel preferred life to be raw, free from idealistic notions which only serve to cloud the truth. By 1940, Neel had decided to devout herself fully to portraiture, capturing the truth of her sitters and creating an iconic image of a time and place in America’s urban history. Here in the little boy’s weary face and placid expression, something of the poverty and truth of life in Spanish Harlem comes through, his full name dully recorded for posterity’s sake.
Working from her home-studio as she reared her two young children, Neel’s choice of subject matter closely reflected the reality of her then life. Peter B. Kaplan was one of the neighborhood children, an eleven year old boy whose mother was friends with Neel. Displaying what would become quintessential traits of her best work, Neel’s subject is laid bare in a full-frontal position, forcibly confronting the viewer with a hard-edge style of painting, elements of Neel’s home recorded in the background. Using her uncanny ability to merge a literal likeness with a highly stylized approach, Neel never sought to create ‘pretty’ pictures, presenting false and idealized versions of reality. What her early anonymous sitters provided, was the opportunity to develop her own manner of expression, freed from the stifling expectations of sitters expecting traditional portraits. Alice Neel is separated from other portraitists by her boldly direct manner and her unmatched power to capture the essence of her sitters –laying bare their vulnerabilities and humanizing even the most famous of her later subjects. Peter B. Kaplan is a wonderful early portrait that traces the development of Neel’s highly personal brand of urban realism.
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