Today we’re celebrating portrait artist Alice Neel, on the anniversary of her death in 1984.
Alice Neel was an American visual artist known for her portraits of people around her, from close friends, family, lovers and colleagues to absolute strangers. No matter who she was painting or how well she knew them, Alice was able to capture the soul of her subject and put it on a canvas. Her paintings are known to hold great emotional depth and to capture the psychological state of the subject. Alice’s ability to acutely capture the mind of her subjects made her paintings feel realistic, despite her more expressionist painting style.
Alice’s work is not only emotionally impactful but radical, in more ways than one. As an artist, her figurative art style went against the grain of abstract art that prevailed at the time. As an activist, her paintings often depicted protesters demonstrating against fascism and racism, and made visible those who are often erased, like the Black and Puerto Rican residents of her neighborhood in Spanish Harlem or members of the LGBTQ+ community.
As a woman, she strove to depict her subjects through the female gaze rather than the male, portraying female bodies in ways that counteracted male objectification and encouraged women to celebrate their bodies in their natural forms. One of her most-loved series depicts pregnant women, which she created at a time when many of her friends were becoming mothers.
Exploring Alice’s retrospective at The Met, entitled “Alice Neel: People Come First”, FF2 guest writer Michelle Wilcox says, “Every painter has that one thread of interest that weaves itself into every painting, regardless of the subject. For Neel, that thread was her belief in humanism, which places emphasis on human need, potential, and inherent goodness. These principles can easily be seen in her endless collection of paintings of people from all walks of life in which she so intimately captures the authentic spirit of each person […] Neel did not flinch away from depicting hardships and raw truth in her work, leaving behind any notions of idealization while still honoring her subjects.”
Neel did not flinch away from depicting hardships and raw truth in her work, leaving behind any notions of idealization while still honoring her subjects.
Alice’s work began to gain recognition as the women’s movement of the 1960’s grew, and she became, and still is, a feminist hero in the art world and beyond.
© Julia Lasker (10/13/2022)
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Featured & bottom photos: “Marxist Girl (Irene Peslikis) Alice Neel (American, Merion Square, Pennsylvania 1900–1984 New York) Date: 1972” by Steve Guttman NYC is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.