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(1900 – 1984), USA

Alice Neel Biography

In her acclaimed portraits, Alice Neel captured the distinctive personality and atmosphere of her subjects, who included friends and family, artists and intellectuals, and the residents of her New York neighbourhoods.

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Early Life

Born in 1900 in Pennsylvania, Alice Neel graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1925. Shortly after, she married Cuban painter Carlos Enriquez and moved with him to live in Havana. Neel's portraits from her time in Cuba typically show her husband and friends in their avant-garde inner circle, as well as the marginalised local community, in whom she would maintain a lifelong interest. In Mother and Child, Havana (1926), Neel uses generous swathes of browns and pinks to depict a mother lovingly holding her child.

New York

Upon returning to the United States in 1927, Neel and Enriquez settled in New York. Their marriage did not last long: after the death of their first child to diphtheria, the artist suffered a nervous breakdown; Enriquez left her three years later, taking their second child with him back to Cuba. Neel spent the following year in a mental asylum, during which 'a deep, psychological charge' took over her works, as Sharmistha Ray wrote in an article for Ocula Magazine. Compared to her earlier portrait of a mother and child in Havana, Degenerate Madonna (1930) is rendered in cold blues and greys. It features a melancholic mother dressed in black with exposed, sagging breasts accompanied by her young child, who has an alarmingly large and pale head.

Neel spent much of the 1930s in Greenwich Village, painting its residents in her characteristically earnest, Expressionist style. Like many of her contemporaries, she was also a member of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Although she painted consistently, little of the artist's works from these years survive: in 1934, her then-lover, sailor Kenneth Doolittle, destroyed more than 350 of her paintings in a jealous rage.

Harlem, Upper West Side, and Recognition

In 1938, Alice Neel moved to Spanish Harlem for a change of atmosphere, where she encountered the immigrant families who came to frequent her portraits. Whether anonymous (Two Girls, Spanish Harlem, 1959) or named (Elsie Rubens, 1960), Neel's subjects are painted with the same interiority and intensity of character.

Neel relocated to the Upper West Side in 1962, residing there until her death in 1984. There, she began to obtain greater attention than she had previously received, going on to hold a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974. Works from this later period of Neel's life include well-known artistic and cultural figures, such as Robert Smithson (1962), and the famous portrait of Andy Warhol (1970) after Valerie Solanas shot him two years prior.

Neel also continued to paint her friends, family, and the overlooked, challenging notions of acceptability in portraiture. Among her most daring works is Self-Portrait (1980), painted when the artist was 80. In it, Neel appears nude and seated in a sofa, revealing a non-idealised, aged female body rarely represented in society.

Exhibitions

With a career spanning six decades, Alice Neel has been the subject of numerous retrospective and major solo exhibitions. Examples include Alice Neel: People Come First, a survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2021; Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life, which traveled throughout Europe between 2016 and 2018; and Uptown, a solo exhibition curated by the Pulitzer Prize winner Hilton Als for David Zwirner New York, which also went on view at Victoria Miro's Venice and London locations in 2017. Alice Neel: Painted Truths, organised by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, travelled to Whitechapel Gallery, London, and the Moderna Museet Malmo, Sweden, in 2010. In 2022, Centre Pompidou is to present the solo exhibition Alice Neel: Un regard engagé in Paris.

Selected group exhibitions include MOTHER! Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark (2021); Winterreise, Xavier Hufkens, Brussels (2020); Monuments to Us, Museum of Fine Arts Boston (2018); Histórias da sexualidade/Histories of Sexuality, São Paulo Museum of Art (2017); First Light: A Decade of Collecting at the ICA, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2016); Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, Met Breuer, New York (2016); America Is Hard to See, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2015); Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. (2014).

Alice Neel's work was also part of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, a group exhibition that travelled to Tate Modern, London; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas; Brooklyn Museum, New York; and The Broad, Los Angeles, between 2017 and 2019.

Alice Neel's website can be found here.

Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2021

Alice Neel Featured Artworks

Leila Webb Davidson by Alice Neel contemporary artwork painting
Alice NeelLeila Webb Davidson, 1971Oil on canvas
113.7 x 77.5 cm
Cheim & Read Contact Gallery
Sally Noblet by Alice Neel contemporary artwork painting
Alice NeelSally Noblet, 1964Oil on canvas
94 x 66 cm
Xavier Hufkens Contact Gallery
Linus and Ava Helen Pauling by Alice Neel contemporary artwork painting
Alice NeelLinus and Ava Helen Pauling, 1969Oil on canvas
121.9 x 106.7 cm
Victoria Miro Enquire
Sue Seely, Nude by Alice Neel contemporary artwork painting
Alice NeelSue Seely, Nude, 1943Oil on canvas
77.2 x 122.6 cm
David Zwirner Contact Gallery
THE SEA by Alice Neel contemporary artwork painting
Alice NeelTHE SEA, 1947Oil on canvas
30 x 24 inches
Cheim & Read Contact Gallery
RACHEL ZURER by Alice Neel contemporary artwork painting
Alice NeelRACHEL ZURER, 1962–1962Oil on canvas
39 x 26 inches
Cheim & Read Contact Gallery
NINTH AVENUE EL by Alice Neel contemporary artwork painting
Alice NeelNINTH AVENUE EL, 1935Oil on canvas
24 x 30 inches
Cheim & Read Contact Gallery
King Asleep by Alice Neel contemporary artwork drawing
Alice NeelKing Asleep, 1954Ink on paper
Variable dimensions
Victoria Miro Enquire

Alice Neel Recent Exhibitions

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Alice Neel Represented By

David Zwirner contemporary art gallery in 19th Street, New York, USA David Zwirner Hong Kong, London, New York, Paris
Victoria Miro contemporary art gallery in Wharf Road, London, United Kingdom Victoria Miro London, New York, Venice
Xavier Hufkens contemporary art gallery in St-Georges, Brussels, Belgium Xavier Hufkens Brussels

Alice Neel In Ocula Magazine

In Ocula Advisory

Alice Neel In Related Press

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Alice Neel In Video & Audio

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