I had never heard of Alice Neel until I came across the picture above online recently. She's described as a major twentieth century portraitist, but I'm uninformed about the art world. I'm glad to find her. I think this work is striking. There is a 2007 documentary film about her life, which can be viewed online here. It left me feeling sorry for her children.
Alice Neel (1900-1984) was born in Pennsylvania, the third of four children. In 1925 she married a Cuban painter and moved to Havana, where her art found appreciation. In 1927 they moved to New York with their infant daughter, who died of diphtheria just before her first birthday. They had a second child in 1928, but in early 1930 the father took the child and moved back to Cuba. Devastated, Neel suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. After a suicide attempt and a year in the hospital, she was released and eventually returned to New York. She never divorced or re-united with her husband. She did have two more children -one in 1939 by a night-club singer who left her in 1940, and another in 1941 by a communist activist who left her in 1955 to marry someone else.
Neel died of colon cancer on October 13, 1984, when she was 84 years old. Four years before her death she painted a self-portrait, a nude:
Neel commented that "the reason I did it was because my own face bores me. I can't bear that little Anglo-Saxon face. But with the whole body, there are strange things going on -- the flesh is falling off the bones...I always had bad feet -- I have a prehensile big toe and there's a leg that as a leg is frightful, but as a work of art, it's gorgeous."
Neel is naked in the painting, save for a pair of eyeglasses, which was her way of saying "look, I'm someonebody who looks. That's who I am. I'm somebody who inspects, I'm somebody who scrutinizes."
"Art is not as stupid as human conversation." -Alice Neel
In 1959 she appeared in a short Beat film named Pull My Daisy. The film was adapted by Jack Kerouac from one of his plays. You can watch it compliments of Vimeo.com:
This video is a 15 minute staff-led overview of Alice Neel's life and times and a more in-depth exploration of one of her portraits:
The photo at the top of the post is from Victoria Miro, where there was a recent exhibition of Neel's work.
I'm scheduling this post as I can, because we're having internet issues here. Please share your T(ea)-related interests (you did notice the cup in that painting at the top of the post, yes?) over at Bluebeard and Elizabeth's weekly gathering.