Norton Museum of Art

West Palm Beach, Florida



Alice Neel: Kinships


Neel disliked being called a portraitist, but rather labeled herself as a "collector of souls." She believed that each person has an identity, an essential core of personality, and it was this that she sought to reveal in her paintings. She often captured aspects of relationships of which her subjects were not aware, and combined in her work her stringent analysis of their interactions with a broad acceptance of the depth of human emotions. She painted her subjects as distinct individuals, in the poses that were natural to them; poses that, in Neel's words, "involve ... all their character and social standing ... what the world has done to them, and their retaliation."

The compositions, as well as the subjects' body language, of such works as The Black Spanish American Family or Annemarie and Georgia, allows the viewer to observe how family members draw together tenderly or reluctantly, look away, touch one another, draw back, or open up. The arms of the parents often encircle their children in Neel's paintings. The early Mother and Child, Havana, 1926, uses this pose to depict a simple, secure relationship.


Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian, 1978, oil on canvas


However, in later works, such as Mother and Child (Nancy and Olivia), 1967, the poses are more attuned to the ambivalent emotions present in the relationship. Don Perlis and Jonathan, 1982, is a portrait of Neel's artist friend and his mentally disabled son. The father's tenderness for Jonathan fills the painting, in which he cradles the boy in his left arm. The warm colors and loose application of paint hide neither the shadowed look on the father's face, nor the gentle vacantness on the son's.

Neel's early work tended to depict generalized relationships, but as her later work deepened, she embraced the particular. She didn't paint "the gay couple," or "the art world couple" instead, she painted unique individuals, as her titles relate: Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian or Cindy Nemser and Chuck. Each subject has a clear individualism. She respected the distinct character of each person without sentimentalizing him or her.


Nancy and Twins, 5 Months, 1971, oil on canvas


The importance of the family for Neel is reflected in her portraits of her sons and their wives and children, some of her best known subjects. Last Sickness, 1952, painted in the year before her mother's death, is intimate and unsentimental, a daughter's record of her strong mother's decline. In Richard in the Era of the Corporation, Neel expresses concern for a son driven by the pressures of a corporate career.

Alice Neel studied at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, now the Moore College of Art. She married Cuban artist Carlos Enriquez in 1925 and moved to Cuba with him where her first child, Santillana, was born. Another daughter was born in 1928. In the early 1930s, Neel returned to New York, where she joined the Public Works of Art Project and later the Federal Art Project. Few of her works from this period remain, however, for in 1934, a man with whom she was living destroyed hundreds of paintings and drawings. Two sons were born in 1939 and 1941. Finally in the 1960s, sixty year old Neel began to receive national attention. A major retrospective of her portraits was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974, and in 1976 she was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. President Jimmy Carter awarded her with a National Women's Caucus for Award in 1979.

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