How to See the Realism of Alice Neel

Katherine20th Century Art, American Paintings, Art Collecting Advice, Artist Spotlight, Contemporary / Modern ArtLeave a Comment

Artist Alice Neel

Alice Neel was painting in New York in the late 1920s.  The magic in her work was her incredible ability to capture the spirit of her subjects so expressively and completely. You can not look at Neel’s paintings as simply a portrait.  They are much more and require the viewer to truly see the person through the artist’s eyes.  She painted her subjects from a psychological perspective and that is important to keep in mind when viewing her work.

Her style of painting may certainly have been influenced by European Expressionists, but Alice Neel’s style is all her own.  She never allowed herself to be greatly influenced by the changing styles of art throughout her career.  Neel remained true to her individual vision of realism.  This made her unpopular for a good portion of her career, but today is one of the reasons why she is so revered.  She was in her 60s before truly being appreciated in the art world.  Neel once said “If you’re sufficiently tenacious and interested, you can accomplish what you want to accomplish in this world.”

Neel | Portrait of Larry | Ackerman's Fine Art

Portrait of Larry

When Alice Neel paints a person, everything about them counts; both exterior and interior. She is known for being able to make a deep connection with a variety of people from children in Spanish Harlem to artists to wealthy socialites.  As part of her process for preparing to do a painting, she explains “I do not pose my sitters. I do not deliberate and then concoct… Before painting, when I talk to the person, they unconsciously assume their most characteristic pose, which in a way involves all their character and social standing – what the world has done to them and their retaliation.”  Her sitters also rarely bought their portraits as they were often an uncomfortably honest portrayal of themselves.

Neel’s paintings can often be hard to look at when first presented. There is often nothing pretty about them. But one should attempt to look deeper at the subject and try to understand who they really are as people and how they became that way.  Alice Neel reveals their personality, vulnerabilities, vanities, beauty and pain on her canvas. She tells the untold story of a person. You can see her work at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma Washington, Milwaukee Art Museum, Tate Modern, London, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York just to name a few place.


Kenny Ackerman is an Art Dealer in New York, specializing in Fine Art Paintings from 19th-21st century Europe and America. To buy or sell original paintings by artists we represent, contact Ackerman’s Fine Art here.

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