“There isn’t much good portrait painting being done today, and I think it is because with all this war, commercialism and fascism, human beings have been steadily marked down in value, despised, rejected and degraded.” –Alice Neel, 1950
Alice Neel (1900-84) was an American artist who went against the twentieth century artistic grain not just by eschewing grand, conscious movements—whether progressive, reactionary, or the one masquerading as the other—but also by concentrating on portraiture. Her paintings were unmistakably hers and had, in my experience at least, an immense impact on contemporary figurative art and not just portraiture.
I’m not as much of a Neel devotee as I was of the folks in my earlier artist Day Threads, but her work’s really something else, as was she. Born into a middle-class Philadelphia family at the turn of the century, she led an adventurous and dangerous younger life, studying art in the United States and Cuba, before settling in New York where she’d live in relative obscurity until the 1970s, when her work would become more widely known under the auspices of folks like Andy Warhol. Neel herself was devoted both to the cultural diversity offered by a place by New York and the many differing visions it offered of the human form: gender, race, ethnicity, and especially age. She painted quite a few older people, including herself, and the fascination, above so many other conflicting emotions, that she felt on seeing her body change so gradually was palpable in her work.
Self-Portrait (detail), 1983
Like so many of the greatest artists, she found some of the most rewarding material in chronicling the marks life and circumstance had left on the human surface, and, though she herself doggedly refused to follow any particular dogma or movement—the Abstract Expressionism that ruled American art during her own heyday more or less left her cold—saw and painted these through a challenging modern lens that renewed the art of portraiture for her own century and beyond.
Nancy and Olivia, 1967
Happy Day Thread! And Happy International Women’s Day!