Alice Neel's daring portraits of people and places are among the most insightful images
in 20th-century American art. This exhibition is the first full-scale examination of her
inspiring and provocative work and marks the centennial of the artist's birth. Organized by
the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it covers nearly 60 years of work and features more than
100 paintings and works on paper, many of which have never been previously exhibited
in a museum.
Born in suburban Philadelphia, Neel (1900-1984) led a
rich and colorful life filled with friends, lovers, family,
fellow artists, and a strong sense of community and social
activism. She became a painter at a time when few
women's lives reached beyond the traditional family
sphere. After graduating from the Philadelphia School of
Design for Women (now Moore College of Art and
Design), Neel spent a year in Havana before moving to
New York City with her husband in 1927. She remained
there for the rest of her life. In the 1930s, her subjects
included many Greenwich Village poets and writers,
friends, and family.
Neel's watercolors and paintings convey individual
psychology and social situations with a boldly personal
approach that has roots in the expressionistic works of
artists as varied as Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and
Diego Rivera. During the Great Depression while she was
employed by the Works Progress Administration, Neel
painted scenes of the city street that reflected her trenchant
concern for the dispossessed: striking workers, impoverished families, and the homeless. Among the
highlights of the exhibition is a rare presentation of works from the Depression era.
During the postwar era, when the tide of the art world had turned toward abstraction, Neel remained
resolutely committed to the representation of the human figure. She was steadfast in depicting the
world around her with compassion, acuity, and freedom. In her works she openly displayed her
empathy for her subjects--from her young sons and her aging mother to left-wing activists. Paintings
of her neighbors in Spanish Harlem employ humor and insight to great effect, in portraits that are
both tender and unforgiving. These canvases range from close likeness to unconventional
compositions that Neel invented from memory.
In the early 1960s, Neel received her first recognition outside a
small circle of admirers. Her astounding emergence, late in life,
corresponded with the dawning of the women's movement and with
the art world's reawakened interest in the human figure. Neel's work
of the next two decades reflects her increasing importance in the
larger art world. Her portraits of fellow artists, including Andy
Warhol, Frank O'Hara, and Faith Ringgold, document a
professional world in which she was suddenly a seemingly
improbable star. It was during these years that Neel perfected the
style for which she is now best remembered: large-scale portraits in
the realist tradition of Thomas Eakins and Robert Henri, but newly
inventive and unforgettably direct.
With the new century comes a reevaluation of the modernist canon,
which often emphasized abstraction at the expense of adventurous
figurative artists. Neel's revolutionary portraits such as the defiant
pose of her young daughter Isabetta, the poignant picture of Andy
Warhol, and her own self-portrait at the age of 80 remain audacious
images today. Alice Neel marks an opportune moment for the first
full appraisal of an important American artist. The current resurgence of portraiture as a vibrant field
for both veteran and emerging artists confirms Neel's ongoing legacy.
Please note: Several works in this exhibition depict adult subject matter, including nudity. Before
entering with children, visitors may wish to preview the exhibition or the catalogue.
Nancy and Olivia