In a moving commentary of one female artist on another, Marlene Dumas wrote of the unique engagement that Alice Neel brought to her modernist portraiture; Neel’s gift was to capture the humanity of her sitters so that “the interaction between her and her life models breathes” (Exh. Cat., Houston, Museum of Fine Arts (and travelling), Alice Neel: Painted Truths
, 2010, p. 95). Neel’s audacity ranged from her unique style of portraiture to her insistence on independence in her personal and professional life, both of which were controversial, particularly at the time she painted Untitled (Woman with a Cat)
in 1932. While the sitter is not identified, the resemblance between the present work and Fanya
from 1930 is uncanny, with the same complexion, sharp chin, elongated nose, and exotic eyes of one of Neel’s earliest staunch supporters, Fanya Foss. Neel had moved to New York with her husband in late 1927, and found work in a Greenwich Village bookstore and shop run by Foss, who later recalled watercolors that Neel brought with her to the interview. Foss’ children have related how she liked to surround herself with talent, and that the two friends had a deep affinity and “shared an early feminist independence and a thirst for sexual life” (Michael Lawrence in: Phoebe Hogan, Alice Neel: The Art of Sitting Pretty
, New York, 2010, p. 57). With this possible attribution, the present work is linked to a woman with an intimate appreciation for Neel’s work; having been one of the first people to acquire her paintings, Foss was also a frequent subject both specific and allegorical, such as in a watercolor from 1929 titled The Intellectual.
Foss later recalled: “I bought Alice’s early periods. …because it’s charged with her past, her poverty, her early struggle, her telling environment and reflected her art on an emotional level which gave them depth, strength, insight and meaning” (ibid
., p. 58).
In the catalogue for an exhibition of Neel’s work of the 1930s at Robert Miller Gallery, Wayne Koestenbaum referenced Fanya of 1930, but could well be describing Untitled (Woman with a Cat) when he eloquently wrote of the timelessness of Neel’s portraiture and its ability to speak to us in the present: “The images ….gaze beyond that decade into our time. They speak an epoch’s preoccupations and styles – I come from 1935 – but also shrug off the coils of art-historical periodization, just as their subjects bear the confinement of their bodies only to refuse and transcend that signage. Fanya in 1930 holds a slim hand against her chest and stares at the viewer, as if to say `Why am I myself? And why do you look at me?’ …Fanya will next say, 'No, you don’t mean “me.” I am not entirely or only myself’” (Exh. Cat., New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Alice Neel: Paintings from the Thirties, 1997, p. 3).