Although Neel eschewed strict naturalism in her widely celebrated oeuvre, Connie has a singular specificity, divulging minute details about the subject that breathes life into her depiction. The sitter is in repose, supporting herself in a dense, compressed space. While the setting reveals little contextual information about the subject, this spatial distortion forces her to fold her body so that it is contained within the boundaries of the picture plane, crafting a sense of intimacy. Neel mimics the sensation of proximity, giving her figure a distinct realism despite her graphic style.
Connie’s clothes are prominent and highly delineated, effectively becoming their own subject matter and informing Neel's depiction of her sitter's identity. Neel's subject wears a striking red and white striped shirt, long black pants and cork-heeled platform shoes, adding a veneer of glamour to her depiction. The sitter, the wife of one the artist's wealthy patrons with whom Neel may have had a romantic entanglement, averts her gaze, crafting an aura of mystery and subverting the sense of power projected by her sartorial self-presentation.
The dynamics of the relationship between Neel and her sitter are made more ambiguous by the artist’s use of art historical allusion, placing her subject in a lineage of female portraiture and more general depictions of the female form. Connie's elegant and attenuated hand is a visual quotation of the similarly elongated features of Bronzino's sitters and the aristocratic portraiture of Van Dyck, while her body is positioned to mimic Titian's Venus of Urbino. The sitter’s loud and vibrant dress recalls Matisse's Woman in a Purple Coat, a masterwork executed just a decade prior that helped bring bold pattern and color into the vernacular of European Modernism. Both Neel and Matisse carefully delineate the patterning on each respective textile, giving them a sense of verisimilitude and making them a subject of their work. While both paintings share many similarities, the present work differs in that Connie dominates its environment rather than being subsumed by it, becoming unplaceable. Using this lack of contextual information to focus attention on the sitter, the present work becomes timeless, taking contemporary and historical references and mixing them to infuse the grandeur and staidness of art historical lineage with the sensation of lived experience.
Although the setting and construction of the present work are not candid, Neel's sensitivity to her subject produces a convincing verisimilitude. The artist’s portrait feels both familiar and idiosyncratic, a product of Neel's "approach [which] married the ‘objectivity’ associated with descriptive realism to the modernist ‘subjectivity’ associated with painterly expressionism to arrive at a paradoxical combination of traditionalism and modernism" (Susan Rosenberg, “People as Evidence,” in Alice Neel, Ed., Ann Temkin, New York 2000, p. 50). Each aforementioned stylistic appropriation and reference to art history is carefully selected to match the essence of her sitter, a form of psychological intimacy that the artist used to produce mimetic portraiture. Neel’s process was contingent on this aforementioned intimacy, stating, “I become the person for a couple of hours, so when they leave and I am finished, I feel disoriented. I have no self. I don’t belong anywhere…It’s terrible this feeling but it just comes because of this powerful identification I make with the person’”(Neel quoted in Jeremy Lewison, “Showing the Barbarity of Life,” in Alice Neel Painted Truths, Houston 2010, p. 52).
Widely considered the most important portraitist of the twentieth-century, Alice Neel came to the fore as painterly figuration began to leave the mainstream. Working in her individual mode through successive generations of abstract, minimalist, and conceptual movements, Neel was staid in her determination to craft depictions that were both beautiful and bruising in their honesty. A woman and a realist painter, the artist lived and worked in an often unwelcoming and discriminatory art world, only finding widespread fame and success in her later years. Painted in 1945, the present work is an early paragon from this long and paradigm shifting body of work, exemplifying the artist's ability to visually depict the sensation of interpersonal intimacy.
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