Home Magazine Alice Neel

Expressive, and emotional. Introspective, dynamic and psychological. Alice Neel’s paintings give us an honest depiction of the innermost truths that lie in the eyes of her subjects. A story that brings us in close contact with New York City’s society of the 20th century, unveiling the internal existence of its inhabitants and the issues related to the definition of one’s identity, in an unequal social and racial environment. 

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American painter Alice Neel is considered to be one of the finest examples of contemporary portraiture, with a fresh and picturesque style that not only aims to catch the likeness of a portrayed individual, it also opens up a pathway for the observer to discover; a road where the spectator encounters the truths and secrets that fill the depths of the subject’s soul. With her work, Neel accompanies the viewer on a journey within the innerscapes of psychological self and, due to the freedom of her approach to elements like form and colour and her intuitions regarding the usage of lines, the artist is able to enhance her interpretation of the internal emotional existence of the subject. In her paintings, Alice Neel captures a moment, rendering those aspects that stand as valid truths of the individual’s personal experience; exposing them to the observer’s scrutiny under the form of a synthetic and straight forward appraisal, which leaves no space for tricks and compliance, it shows itself in an instant of undeniable honesty.


Alice Neel, Pregnant Woman, 1971. Oil on canvas.


Throughout all of her research, the artist always maintains a strong relation with her past life experience. For instance, the constant return of themes concerning motherhood, and anxiety, find a strong link with her sufferance for the loss of her first child, in 1927, and her complicated marriage with Cuban painter Carlos Enriquez Gomez. The closeness that Alice Neel felt in relation with the subjects she painted, allowed her to represent them with complete honesty, as if she used the individual she chose to paint to channel her own inner sufferance and communicate it using the portrait itself as a metaphor; as a poetic transposition of her own burden. After all, painting often feels like a cure, like a moment of recollection in which all the noise becomes silence, an instant in which the painter embraces all of the harshness he or she felt throughout his or her life, and translates it into something beautiful. 



From left to right: Alice Neel, Mother and Child, 1962. Oil on canvas; Alice Neel, Nancy and Olivia, 1967. Oil on canvas. 

Alice Neel used her struggle to develop a unique and expressive style, to elevate both herself and her subjects to a higher state of expressiveness, a stage where the colour of a line becomes predominant over the realistic resemblance of the portrait; where storytelling overtakes mimesis. Besides all of the conceptual arguments that can derive from Neel’s research, greatest importance must be given to the fact that she just kept on painting. As Alice’s daughter in law Ginny Neel once disclosed: “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.”


Alice Neel, The Family, 1980. Oil on canvas.


Cover image: Alice Neel, Nancy and the Twins (5 months), 1971. Oil on canvas.

Written by Mario Rodolfo Silva

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