Portrait artists are tasked with capturing the soul of their subject. Painter Alice Neel commented that she would have gone into psychology if it wasn’t for art. This is evident throughout Neel’s career. Each work is focused on the character and inner workings of the subjects. The paintings are deeply personal in an unflinching and soul-bearing way.
The hallmarks of Neel’s works are the arresting quality of the figures themselves. There is usually little background detail, the focus is solely on the person in the painting. The subjects themselves are painted in an almost abstract style. Fingers and limbs are stretched to strange proportions and the eyes are large and seem to float outside the skull. This makes the subject appear alien, but the feelings and frustrations expressed by posture and the look in their eyes are familiar. These works speak to the viewer in a deep and intimate way, like an honest conversation with an old friend.
What truly defines Alice Neel is in her treatment of the subject. Everyone who sat for painting, from Andy Warhol to street kids, was met with the same level of scrutiny and sincerity. There is an honesty that is blind to social class. She cared very little about how wealthy or important a person was or wasn’t, she only wanted to paint their spirit. This frankness can be seen in her 1980 self-portrait. She paints herself nude, uncaring that she is an old woman. She displays herself bluntly, wrinkles and all. It is a brave work that speaks volumes of her boldness. Like in many of her works, the subject meets the viewer’s eyes without fear.
The great love of Neel’s life was the study of other people through art. Unlike her peers, she rarely marketed herself and was disinterested in fame. Relatives remarked after she passed away that she had only left behind a few dresses and some portraits. This was the essence of Alice Neel, a woman who willingly gave herself over to her art.