Alice Neel

born Merion Square, PA 1900-died New York City 1984
Media - portrait_image_114775.jpg - 90471
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, © Estate of Alice Neel, 1980
Also known as
  • Alice Hartley Neel
Merion Square, Pennsylvania, United States
New York, New York, United States
  • American

Born in Merion Square, Pennsylvania, Alice Neel graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art) in 1925. She was a portrait painter whose work cut across the social classes. She once described herself as a "collector of souls," and lived much of her adult life in the Spanish Harlem section of New York City. From 1935 to 1943, Neel was employed by the W.P.A. Federal Art Project, Easel Division. She was also included in a group exhibition of acclaimed women artists in Washington, D.C., in 1979, entitled Women's Caucus for Art Honors Bishop, Burke, Neel, Nevelson, O'Keeffe.

Therese Thau Heyman Posters American Style (New York and Washington, D.C.: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with the National Museum of American Art, 1998)

Artist Biography

Alice Neel was born in Merion Square, Pennsylvania, and studied at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art) from 1921 to 1925. After living briefly in Havana, Cuba, she settled in New York City in 1927. During the 1930s she participated in the Federal Art Project. Although she painted landscapes, interiors, and still lifes, Neel was best known for her expressionistic portraits. In these "pictures of people," as she preferred to call them, Neel sought to convey the inner essence of her subjects. Her distinctive style received belated recognition in 1974 with a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1981 Neel became the first living American artist to have a major retrospective of her work in Moscow.

National Museum of American Art (CD-ROM) (New York and Washington D.C.: MacMillan Digital in cooperation with the National Museum of American Art, 1996)

Luce Artist Biography

Alice Neel's artwork was largely overlooked for the first forty years of her career. When other artists were working with abstraction, Neel was painting regular people—pregnant nudes, social outsiders, and family members. She often depicted people she encountered on the street and once even convinced a door-to-door salesman to pose for a portrait. She talked to her sitters while she painted, attempting to reveal the sitter's inner self, or what she described as their "psychological truths." Neel tried to "capture the zeitgeist, the spirit of the day" in her work and lived what many would consider a bohemian lifestyle. She had numerous lovers, several children by different men, and lived in Spanish Harlem in New York City. Her work garnered more recognition in the late 1960s with the rise of the feminist movement and the returning popularity of figurative artwork. Around this time, Neel began to paint well-known figures such as Andy Warhol, had several solo exhibitions, and received the first National Women's Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement award in 1979. Despite her growing popularity, she maintained her unconventional approach to life and work, finishing a nude self-portrait at the age of eighty. Neel continued to paint until her death in 1984. ("Alice Neel and the Human Comedy," ARTnews, October 1984; "Alice Neel: 'I have this obsession with life,'"ARTnews, January 1974)

Related Books

Crosscurrents: Modern Art from the Sam Rose and Julie Walters Collection
In eighty-eight striking paintings and sculptures, Crosscurrents captures modernism as it moved from early abstractions by O’Keeffe, to Picasso and Pollock in midcentury, to pop riffs on contemporary culture by Roy Lichtenstein, Wayne Thiebaud, and Tom Wesselmann—all illustrating the complexity and energy of a distinctly American modernism.