Alice Neel: From Personal Struggle To Artistic Absolution

May 30, 2023 | Art Insights

Written by: Chiara Atoyebi

Alice Neel in her studio photo in the public domain


As I continue to delve into the themes of motherhood, relationships, loss, and second chances, I became intrigued by Alice Neel’s story. Her experiences resonate with the struggle faced by daughters of women who feel confined by their circumstances. As women, we often emulate what we saw our mothers do or strive for the independence they were unable to attain. Ironically, even if we succeed in breaking free from financial constraints, we may still struggle with unspoken emotions of grief and loss. The loss of self comes with partnership, alignment with others, and entering into motherhood. Neel’s creative life took her from the farms of Pennsylvania to a mansion in Cuba with servants and an entourage of Communist-leaning artists, writers, intellectuals, and performers. However, it was not enough to satiate her desire for more. The New Yorker profiled Neel as a woman who wanted to leave her posh life and venture into a more colorful Harlem, yet, I see her as a White woman in still quasi-segregated world seeking absolution in a way, that feels Oedipal in its irony. She tended to align herself with Spanish men, who, in many ways, are very traditional. Her seeking of the conventional, while attempting to be independent, ultimately became too much psychologically for Neel to bear because the two ideologies are diametrically opposed. She may have felt she could appease the men in her life with a child that did inspire her but was also a transactional exchange–their progeny for her artistic freedom. However, what she did not bargain for were some of the similar struggles experienced by her mother, whose own embittered interpretations of a women’s place may have proven to be true no matter where she ran to. Neel would discover that raising children is difficult; raising children alone without mental health support and even financial help can be soul-crushing. Her emotions surrounding childbirth and chaos were evident in her portrayal of a hospital nursery in “Well Baby Clinic,” painting can be soul-crushing. 

In an untitled poem Neel writes:

I love you Harlem
Your life your pregnant
Women, your relief lines
Outside the bank . . .
What a treasure of goodness
And life shambles . . .

When I read these words, I see an artist who’s eye in catching the reflections of her own inner world. Her adventures into Harlem may have placed her in a different demographic. But I would argue that her deepest truths resided in the neighborhood she called home. After years of raising children often unassisted and on welfare, it wasn’t until she aligned herself with the feminists was she given a lifeline and began to experience true success as an artist.

The Life of Alice Neel

Alice Neel is an iconic 20th-century artist celebrated for her captivating portraits that convey profound human emotions and unbridled authenticity. However, Neel was more than just an artist; she was a wife, mother, and woman who suffered deep grief throughout her life and one whose mental health problems often got the best of her. 

She was born in Merion, Pennsylvania, on January 28, 1900. She was the fourth of five children raised in a conventional lower-middle-class household during a time when women had few opportunities to work outside of the home. Her father was an accountant for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and her mother was a homemaker whose limited experiences and choices played a role in how she reared her children.

Harris & Ewing, photographer. PENNSYLVANIA RAILROAD TICKET COUNTER. , None. [Between 1905 and 1945] Photograph. Retrieved May 30, 2023.

After a brief stint in Colwyn, Pennsylvania, where the family moved during the mid-1900s, Alice’s artistic inclinations manifested early. Despite her family’s skepticism, embodied in her mother’s words: “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, you’re only a girl.[1]

After she turned 18, Neel began her artistic pursuits in Philadelphia, juggling her high-paying clerical position intended to support her family, with night art classes. Neel eventually pursued full-time education at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1921, earning various accolades for her work in the realist style, an influence credited to Ashcan School proponent Robert Henri.

In 1924, the hopeful and ambitious Neel met Cuban painter Carlos Enríquez, and their encounter changed her life dramatically. The pair married the following year and relocated to Havana, where she was introduced to the Cuban avant-garde and members of the Cuban Vanguardia Movement.  Enriquez, a self-taught painter himself, was born to a wealthy Cuban family. His father was a  sugarcane plantation owner and respected physician who treated the Cuban president. Yet, the marriage proved to be unsuccessful due in part to a trail of personal tragedies  which shaped her work. Their first daughter, Santillana, succumbed to diphtheria in 1927, a sorrow that vividly tinged Neel’s ensuing themes of motherhood, loss, and anxiety. In 1930, after a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt resulting from Carlos taking their second daughter to Cuba, Neel relocated to New York, where her artwork captured the Depression era’s gritty spirit. 

Alice Neel, “Georgie Arce No. 2” (1955) photgraph of painting Flickr

During this time her work was fueled by the Works Progress Administration and led to her recognition in the art world. 

“Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd,” from 1970 photograph from Flickr

The interesting thing about Neel’s realist style are the eyes. They seem to not look at the viewer, out into the distance, but I feel they are engaged with the artist, looking directly at her, while she depicted them on canvas. If I had to have a motto for her work it would be, “this is life,” and it is.

Neel’s early work was heavily influenced by the social realism movement, which was popular during the 1930s. This movement focused on the struggles of working-class people and sought to use art as a means of social change. Neel’s paintings of this era often depicted ordinary people, including members of her own family, friends, and neighbors. Her paintings of laborers and working-class families conveyed the struggles of everyday life, highlighting the social and economic inequality that was pervasive during this period.

Alice Neel, “Andy Warhol” photograph of painting Flickr

In the 1950s, Neel’s art underwent a transformation as she began to focus on portraiture. Her portraits of fellow artists, writers, and intellectuals captured the zeitgeist of the era, reflecting the cultural shifts and upheavals that were taking place in America. Her subjects included luminaries such as Andy Warhol, Robert Smithson, and Allen Ginsberg, among others. Neel’s portraits were more than just images of her subjects; they were also reflections of the intellectual and cultural ferment of the times.

Throughout her career, Neel was also deeply involved in political and social activism. She was a committed socialist and feminist, and her art was often a vehicle for her political beliefs. In the 1930s, she joined the Communist Party and was an active participant in the labor movement. In the 1960s, she participated in civil rights and anti-war protests, and her art reflected her activism. Her portraits of Black and Latino subjects challenged the prevalent racism of the times, and her images of anti-war protesters captured the turbulent political climate of the era.

Alce Neel “Self Portrait” public domain.

Alice Neel’s art and activism are inseparable, as she used her art as a means of political and social commentary. Her portraits captured the zeitgeist of the times, reflecting the social and cultural changes that were taking place in America. Her art was not just a reflection of the times; it was also a means of social change, challenging the prevailing social and political norms of her era. Today, Alice Neel’s art continues to inspire and challenge us, reminding us of the power of art to create social change. It also reminds us that art has the power to create change even if it takes a long time. Alhough Neel would find her success later in life, she found it while living a life true to herself. Her work is evidence that living a truthful life can be a beautiful one and we have her beautiful work to remind us of that.

Alice Neel recieved the Lifetime Achievement Award for her artistic achievement in 1979.

[1] Hoban, Phoebe (April 22, 2010). “Portraits of Alice Neel’s Legacy”The New York TimesArchived February 5, 2018, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved May 27, 2023.