Liberal Arts Blog — Alice Neel — “Her rightful place in the Pantheon” (NYT)

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Today’s Topic: Alice Neel (1900–1984) — “Her rightful place in the Pantheon” (New York Times)

Was Alice Neel the greatest portraitist of the 20th century? Perhaps. She thought so. Her ego was up there with Picasso’s. But so was her talent. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

SHE WAS A CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST AND LIVED IN SPANISH HARLEM FOR 25 YEARS

1. “Whether I’m painting or not, I have this overweening interest in humanity. Even if I’m not working, I’m still analyzing people.” (Neel)

2. “All experience is great providing you live through it. If it kills you, you’ve gone too far.”

3. “I break those rules — [my portraits] are considered bold by timid people. They’re not really bold — they’re just the truth.”

NB: “What she [art historian Ann Sutherland Harris] actually said was that I was the best portrait painter of the 20th century. Which may not be untrue.”

SHE WAS A FEMINIST BUT SHE ALSO SAID “I DON’T THINK THERE IS AN ICONOGRAPHY THAT GOES ESPECIALLY WITH WOMEN”

1. “I like to paint. I love to paint. In fact I feel as though I’m living for a purpose. Life isn’t just empty.”

2. “One of the reason I painted — to catch life as it goes by, hot off the griddle.”

3. “I tried to capture the zeitgeist. I lived in Harlem for 25 years I wanted to show the environment plus the people that were living there.”

NB: “Art was more than a profession, it was an obsession….It keeps me alive.”

CHILDREN, NUDE PREGNANT WOMEN, A SELF-PORTRAIT, LANDSCAPES

1. ‘To be painted by Miss Neel is not simply the equivalent of a body search. It is the equivalent of a body-and-soul search.’’ (John Russell, art critic of the New York Times)

2. “I had a very hard life but I did as I wanted. I’m a high powered person.” (Neel)

3. “My life was pure women’s lib in a way.” (Neel)

FOOTNOTES — unsupportive mother, four children, suicide attempt and hospitalization

1. “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, you’re only a girl.” (her mother)

2. “Alice Neel had four children, two girls and two boys, with three different men. Her first daughter, Santillana, died of diphtheria just before turning one. Isabetta, her second daughter, was taken to Cuba by her father when she was about two years old; Neel only saw her daughter during a few rare visits. In between her daughters and her sons, Neel suffered a miscarriage. Neel raised her youngest two children, Richard and Hartley, on her own.”

3. The death of her first child plus her husband’s departure with her second led to a nervous breakdown, a suicide attempt, and hospitalization from 1930 to 1931. “Even in the insane asylum, she painted. Alice loved a wretch. She loved the wretch in the hero and the hero in the wretch. She saw that in all of us, I think.” (Ginnie Neel, her daughter-in-law)

NB: After decades of obscurity, she became famous in the 1970s. She was given an award by President Carter in 1978 and in 1981 was “the first living American artist to have a major retrospective exhibition in Moscow.” She also did two Time Magazine cover portraits: Kate Millet, the feminist (1970) and FDR (1982). “Alice Neel: People Come First” is a mammoth retrospective exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC until August 1. The title comes from a statement the artist made in 1950, “For me, people come first. I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.”

Alice Neel (excerpt, http://www.artnewyork.org)

https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2021/alice-neel

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Neel

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/01/arts/design/alice-neel-metropolitan-museum-review.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dana_Gordon

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