Alice Hartley Neel was born in Pennsylvania in 1900. She first studied art by taking classes at night at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia, after working in a clerical position by day. In 1921, she focused on art studies full time at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. The work she did there was recognized with numerous awards. In 1924, she took outdoor painting and portrait classes through the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and met her future husband, Cuban artist Carlos Enríquez.
The 1920s and 30s were full of personal tragedy and hardship. In 1926, Alice and Carlos move to Havana, Cuba and soon had their first child, Santillana. In Havana, Neel embraces the Cuban avant-garde made up of young writers, artists and musicians. The experience helped develop her lifelong political consciousness and commitment to equality for woman, artists and African Americans. Alice and Carlos lost their first child and shortly after having her second child, Carlos left Alice and took the child with him. Having lost her husband and essentially two children, Neel had a serious nervous breakdown and attempted suicide twice. Alice and Carlos never divorced, but would see each other for the last time in 1934.
In the 30s, Alice Neel lived in New York. Twice, large amounts of work were destroyed. First by a angry boyfriend who burned more than three hundred drawings and watercolors and slashes more than fifty oil paintings. The second was when the Work Progress Administration program ended and the many works she produced while in the program was sold for scrap canvas. Neel moved to Spanish Harlem, New York in 1938 and would continue to live there until the 1960s. There she painted the Puerto Rican community, friends and people she saw on the street. Throughout her career, Neel painted portraits of people in her own life. She referred to her work as “pictures of people” to set herself apart from male-dominated traditional portraiture. By mid- 1940s, Alice Neel was more established as an artist and had a good circle of friends made up of intellectuals and Communist Party leaders. Her portraits during this time are of left wing writers and artists and are included in gallery shows in New York. She also created illustrations for Masses & Mainstream, a Communist publication.
In the 1950s and 60s, Alice Neel became more involved with the Woman’s Rights Movement. She participates in several protests against museums lack of inclusion of women and African American artists in their exhibitions. She would later become an icon of the women’s movement and be recognized with the International Women’s Year Award for her work and dedication. She continues to exhibit and paints portraits of artists, including Andy Warhol and Robert Smithson, curators, gallery owners and political personalities. Interest in Neel’s work continues to grow and she is able to exhibit in group and solo gallery shows more frequently. In 1963, she receives the Longview Foundation Purchase Award from Dillard University, New Orleans.
In the 1970s, Alice Neel painted portraits of her family as well as a major series of nudes. She exhibited extensively throughout the mid 1970s and in 1974 a retrospective exhibition of her life work at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York was held. This was a great achievement for her personally as a woman artist. She had fought for many years to create more opportunities for women artist to be more widely accepted by the museum establishments. She was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (now the American Academy of Arts and Letters) and received the National Women’s Caucus for Art Award for outstanding achievement in the visual arts in 1979. She died in 1984 of cancer.
Alice Neel was one of the pioneer artists of the twentieth century. Her paintings reflect her dedication to social realism, but they also describe her life and socially turbulent world in which she lived.
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