Alice Neel. Part 3 – The men in her life – Kenneth Doolittle, John Rothschild and Joe Gould

Alice Neel
Alice Neel

Alice Neel was finally released from hospital in September 1931, almost thirteen months after her initial breakdown.  Once discharged from hospital she reacquainted herself with her friend Nadia Olyanova and her Norwegian Merchant Marine husband, Egil Hoye, who were now living in Stockton New Jersey.  It was during one of her visits to her friends that September, that she meets a friend of theirs, another Merchant Marine, Kenneth Doolittle. Doolittle had joined the merchant marines at the age of sixteen and it was during his first voyage that a fellow seaman introduced him to the world of communism.   Early the following year Alice and Doolittle moved in together and lived in an apartment on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village, which was looked upon, at the time,  as the centre of bohemian life, an area which was full of bohemian cafés and bars, a place where eccentricity was the norm.  Alice was aware of Doolittle’s character flaws, one of which was that he was a drug addict and also a very jealous man, especially with regards to her relationships with other men.  Cindy Nemser, an American art historian, writer, as well as being the founder and editor of the Feminist Art Journal.  She was an activist and prominent figure in the feminist art movement who was best known for her writings on the work of women artists.  She wrote an article in the magazine Art Talks regarding Alice Neel and Kenneth Doolittle in which she quotes Alice’s thoughts on her lover:

“…I lived with a sailor. A rather interesting chap who played the guitar and sang and was rather nice except that he liked dope.  He had a coffee can full of opium.  I didn’t dare smoke opium since I had just had this nervous breakdown, but they smoked opium at my apartment…”

In Patricia Hills 1983 book, Alice Neel, the author wrote that Alice’s mother was far from being impressed with Doolittle and wanted to separate the two lovebirds.  Alice’s mother was quoted as saying:

“…Why don’t you go stay with your sister in Teaneck, instead of out there with that dirty old sailor…”

However, the relationship continued despite the maternal warning.

Well Baby Clinic by Alice Neel (1928)
Well Baby Clinic by Alice Neel (1928)

In May 1932, Alice took part in the first Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit.  The Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit was, and still is, a biannual outdoor art festival which originated in 1931 by Jackson Pollock.  Pollock, who had fallen on hard times financially, would leave his Greenwich Village studio and set up his paintings on the sidewalk in hope that it may boost sales. Now these outdoor exhibits held by local artists help them sell their paintings and also help them gain recognition for their talents.  It was at this exhibition that Alice presented her 1928 work, Well Baby Clinic.  In the painting we see a nurse clothed in white and holding a baby. The pristine whiteness of her uniform contrasts with the dirty off-white colour of the nursery walls.  The nurse stands in the centre of the hospital ward and is surrounded by mothers feeding and cosseting their children whilst other babies can be seen lying unattended on white beds. In some ways this simplistic painting is quite disturbing, and probably offered the jaundiced view of childbirth held by the artist.  Alice Neel completed the work just a fortnight after the birth of her second child, Isabetta.

Degenerate Madonna, 1930, by Alice Neel
Degenerate Madonna, 1930, by Alice Neel

Neel also exhibited a very controversial painting at the exhibition entitled Degenerate Madonna but after many vociferous protestations from the Catholic Church she was asked to remove the work.  This was her take on the Madonna and Child genre

It was at this exhibition that she met a man who would be ever present throughout her life as her best friend and loyal supporter.  He was John Rothschild.  He had walked up to her during the exhibition and praised her work and later invited her and Doolittle to join him for drinks at his place.  John was a Harvard graduate who came from a wealthy background. His family owned the travel firm, Open Road.

Kenneth Doolittle watercolour by Alice Neel (1931)
Kenneth Doolittle watercolour by Alice Neel (1931)

Alice’s relationship with Doolittle had intensified, however, it all came to an abrupt end in December 1934, after Doolittle, in a fit of jealous rage, slashed or burnt a large number of her early works. He was thought to have been jealous of Neel’s relationship with another man but others believed that “the other man” was her art and the amount of time she dedicated to her painting.   Later Neel recalled the incident, as quoted in Wayne Kostenbaum 1997 book Alice Neel: Paintings from the Thirties:

“…Kenneth Doolittle cut up and burned about sixty paintings and two hundred drawings and watercolors in our apartment at 33 Cornelia Street. Also, he burned my clothing. He had no right to do that. I don’t think he would have done that if he hadn’t been a dope addict. He had a coffee can full of opium that looked like tar off the street. And it was a frightful act of male chauvinism: that he could control me completely. I had to run out of the apartment or I would have had my throat cut. That was a traumatic experience as he had destroyed a lot of my best work, things I had done before I ever knew he existed. It took me years to get over it….”

After the violent break up with Doolittle, Neel moved out of their apartment and being homeless went to stay with John Rothschild, and thanks to some financial help from his parents she had enough money to buy a small cottage in Spring Lake, New Jersey.  At the time, Rothschild was married with children but told Alice that he loved her and left his wife and became Neel’s lover but he wanted a more formalised relationship but Neel was happy with a less prescribed liaison, added to which she was often openly scathing about his prowess as a lover.  She was unconvinced regarding the future of their relationship and later that year left him and moved, to live alone, in a Manhattan apartment.

 That same year Alice depicted the two of them in the bathroom after a bout of lovemaking, in a painting entitled Bathroom Scene.

Untitled (Alice Neel and John Rothschild in the Bathroom) by Alice Neel (1935)
Untitled (Alice Neel and John Rothschild in the Bathroom) by Alice Neel (1935)

Alice Neel who was now in her mid-thirties, depicted herself in her 1935 painting entitled Alice and John in the Bathroom as a beautiful and curvy woman, with her long red hair. We see her seated on the toilet urinating while her lover, John Rothschild, stands at the sink, urinating with an erect penis in his hand. Stephanie Buhman in her 2009 article in on-line art magazine artcritical describes the painting:

“…Neel can be seen sitting on a toilet seat while urinating. John stands at the sink, urinating with an erect penis in his hand. Various shades of red accentuate details, such as Alice’s pubic hair, the toilet seat, John’s slippers and the head of his penis. Alice’s legs are turned outward, her arms crossed over her head, almost taking on the posture of an Indian deity. The scene could not be more humbling in its honesty and lack of glorification. Leaving the viewer in the role of a voyeur, Alice and John in the Bathroom is an ode to the pure sense of trust and privacy that two individuals, despite all imperfections, can experience when truly caring for each other…”

The work in no way beautifies the lovemaking which had just happened and I wonder what was in her mind when she painted this shockingly explicit work.

The first exhibition of the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit was so successful that a second one was held that November.  The second event was even bigger than the first with over three hundred artists participating.  Juliana Force, who was the Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and who had endorsed the exhibition, was so impressed with the works on show that she invited many of the exhibitors to meet her and talk about their work and their artistic struggle to survive financially

At the end of 1933, Alice Neel enrolled in the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), a government-funded program run under the auspices of the Whitney Museum of American Art and its director Juliana Force, aided by Vernon C. Porter.  In the 1977 book, New York City WPA Art: Then and  and Now, she recalled the time:

“…The first I heard of the W.P.A. was when in 1933 I received a letter from the Whitney Museum asking me to come and see them. I was interviewed by a young man who asked me ‘How would you like to paint for $30 a week?’ This was fabulous as most of the artists had nothing in those days and in fact there were free lunches for artists in the Village … All the artists were on the project. If there had been no such cultural projects there might

An interesting painting by Neel was completed in 1933 whilst she was part of the Works Progress Administration, which was a New Deal program to help the impoverished and unemployed.  In the work we see a scene which Neel could empathize with as she was then also struggling financially.   Before us we see a room at The Russell Sage Foundation, which had been established by Margaret Olivia Sage in 1907.  The aim of the foundation was to try and improve the social and living conditions in the United States.

Investigation of Poverty, Russell Sage Foundation by Alice Neel (1933)
Investigation of Poverty, Russell Sage Foundation by Alice Neel (1933)

In the painting, at the centre rear, we see an elderly grey-haired lady facing side on to us.  She is dressed all in black and we notice that she has her head buried in her hands. Her black clothing probably signifies that she is a widow. We see her seated in front of a small table around which are her interrogators. They look directly at her and one of them seems to be talking to her.  From looking at her, caste your eyes on her inquisitors.  How would you describe their expressions –reflective and yet detached?   It is an unusual grouping.  The men are all wearing suits and ties and the women all wear hats.  In the left foreground, with his back to the viewer, a man sits leaning forward, apparently one of the questioners.  The painting is all about the despair of the central character even though we cannot see her face. Despite the fact that the people investigating her status seem to be well-meaning, the woman is clearly bewildered by the situation that has necessitated her being at this meeting, a prerequisite if she wants financial assistance.  Alice Neel, through this painting, captures the essence of what life was like for the poor during the Depression.  What could be more demeaning than an old lady having to suffer the questions posed by the “suits” in order to gain financial help?.  In the right foreground we see two men, side on to us, who are next in line to be questioned.  One of them has a white moustache and is well dressed in suit and tie.  By the look of his expression he too seems overwhelmed by the ordeal

Joe Gould by Alice Neel (1933)
Joe Gould by Alice Neel (1933)

That year Alice Neel completed a somewhat controversial painting of Joe Gould.  For over three decades Gould, who was a homeless Harvard graduate, and a Greenwich Village eccentric who went from bar to bar telling those who would listen to him about the book he was writing.  It was not just any book, he said it was to be the longest book ever written, entitled An Oral History of Our Time.  There must have been something appealing about him as he was well supported by the Greenwich Village artists, poets and writers of the time.

Joe Gould
Joe Gould

The stories of his large tome spread and a journalist, Joseph Mitchell, on the New Yorker wrote a couple of pieces about Gould and his famous book.  Sadly for Mitchell the book was just a figment of Gould’s imagination !   However, Gould became a local legend thanks to all the publicity and it went to his head as he truly believed that his fame was well deserved and that now he was a great attraction especially for the women.  It was probably because of his belief that he was such a lady’s man and a great lover, again, like the book, probably a figment of his imagination, resulted in the way Alice Neel depicted him in her 1933 controversial painting, Joe Gould, which an art critic described as “a symphony of cocks”

In 1934 Alice receives a letter from her estranged husband Joe Enriquez, who on on the news of his mother’s death, had left Europe and returned to his home in Cuba.   In the letter he asked Alice to consider a reconciliation but by now she had other men in her life, her lover Kenneth Doolittle and her ardent admirer John Rothschild and so she declined the “invitation” and she and her husband were never to meet again.

In the early thirties Neel completed a number of nude paintings.  There was nothing erotic or genteel about them, on the contrary these paintings and sketches were down to earth “warts and all” honest depictions of nude men and women.

Alienation by Alice Neel (1935)
Alienation by Alice Neel (1935)

In her 1935 watercolour on paper work entitled Alienation she depicted herself lying voluptuously in bed while her friend and lover John Rothschild stands over her.  It is interesting to note that at this time the painting of nudity was not considered appropriate for a female artist to pursue.

Nadya and Nona by Alice Neel (1933)
Nadya and Nona by Alice Neel (1933)

Another early example is Nadya and Nona which she completed in 1933.  It is a challenging and provocative painting of two nude women lying in bed which scrutinised the subject of sexuality but at the same time avoided any erotic or seductive nuances.

It is around this time that another man comes into her life.  He is a married nightclub singer Jose Santiago Negron………………….

…………………to be continued.

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I have used numerous internet sources to put together this and the following blogs on the life and art of Alice Neel and I am currently reading a fascinating book about the artist by Phoebe Hoban entitled Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty. It is a very interesting read and one I can highly recommend.

Alice Neel’s art is being shown in a number of exhibitions in America but there are also a series of exhibitions of her work travelling around Europe at the current time:

Painter of Modern Life at the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

(June 10th – October 2nd 2016)

and at the

Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag, Holland

(November 5th, 2016 – February 12th 2017)

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Alice Neel. Part 2 – First true love, heartbreak and dark days

Photograph of Alice Neel titled Alice Enríquez 1929.
Photograph of Alice Neel titled Alice Enríquez 1929.

Alice’s love of art and her determination ensured she did well gaining a number of awards for her portraiture.  In the summer of 1924 she attended the summer school at Chester Springs organised by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  In some ways it was an idyllic place to fall in love, which she did.  Here students were able to take part in portrait classes as well as landscape drawing and painting classes.

Alice Neel and Carlos Enriquez (1924)
Alice Neel and Carlos Enriquez (1924)

Whilst on this course Alice met and became friends with a fellow artist, Carlos Enríquez de Gómez.   She asserted later that he was tall, dark and handsome and absolutely gorgeous.  Carlos, like Alice, was born in 1900.  His birthplace was the small rural village of Zulueta, Cuba.  He came from one of the wealthiest wealthy Cuban families.  His father was was a sugar cane plantation owner and a physician, who even tended the Cuban president Gerardo Machado.  Carlos received little academic artistic training with the exception of taking painting classes while in high school at the Escolapios in Guanabacoa during 1918-19 and so he could almost be classified as being a self-taught painter.  He completed his schooling in Havana where he graduated and, because his parents wanted their son to obtain a technical degree, which would then allow him to enter the world of business, they enrolled him at the Curtis Business School in Philadelphia to study commerce.  However, Carlos was not wanting to be a “captain of industry”, he wanted to paint.  He wanted to become an artist and so in 1924 he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts summer school.

Carlos Enríquez by Alice Neel (1926)
Carlos Enríquez by Alice Neel (1926)

It must have been love at first sight for these two young aspiring artists.  Unfortunately for Carlos, all thought of art died as all he wanted was to be with his beloved Alice.  In July the course organisers lost patience with him and his lack of work and expelled him.  Alice quit the Summer School course in protest.  Carlos returned home to Cuba but in a letter to Alice, he wrote:

“…How wonderful would it be if you were a lost princess in the woods and of course as the legend always says, I riding a horse will find you crying … Weep no more my fair lady….. I’ll say … for I have a kingdom in my heart for you…”

Alice continued with her studies at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and in her final year wins the Kern Dodge Prize for best painting in life class and in June 1925 she graduated from the school.  This final year of her studies had been traumatic.  She missed her new love and recalled that year:

“…After I met Carlos, I went back to school, and although I worked hard, it wasn’t like the other years, it wasn’t as good.  The year was ruined by the fact that I wanted to be in Havana even then and marry…”

Collecting Souls, Gathering Dust: The Struggles of Two American Artists, Alice Neel and Rhoda Medary
Collecting Souls, Gathering Dust: The Struggles of Two American Artists, Alice Neel and Rhoda Medary

Having completed her course at the Philadelphia School for Women Alice Neel spent time with her closest friends, fellow aspiring artists, Rhoda Medary and Ethel Ashton and the three of them would take classes on a Sunday afternoon at the local Graphic Sketch Club.  Medary and Neel suffered from similar problems in life.  In an interesting biography of the two artists written in 1991 by Gerald and Margaret Belcher, entitled Collecting Souls, Gathering Dust: The Struggles of Two American Artists, Alice Neel and Rhoda Medary, the authors illustrate how difficult life was for women who wanted to be artists, especially those burdened with overbearing mothers and weak husbands As students at the Philadelphia College of the Arts, both Neel and Medary were said to have been difficult, contentious, talented, and impulsive. Rhoda Medary was believed to have been the more talented student, who married for love, gave up painting, and spent 34 years following her handsome but feckless and withdrawn husband around the country. Frustrated and angry, she didn’t resume painting until after he’d committed suicide.  Her children abandoned her, and she’d found a place supervising the student art store at Beaver College.

Rhoda Myers with Blue Hat by Alice Neel (1930)
Rhoda Myers with Blue Hat by Alice Neel (1930)

In 1930 Alice Neel depicted her friend in a couple of nude painting, one of which was entitled Rhoda Myers with Blue Hat.  It is a strange painting and a hardly flattering depiction of her friend.  We see Myers seated and nude, dressed only in pearls and a large blue hat. Myers’ figure is depicted with a dark outline and flat form of her body.  This was a style Alice Neel used to counter a depiction of the female nudity as sexually enticing.  In her 2002 book Alice Neel: Women.  Mirror of Identity, Caroline Carr wrote about this painting, saying:

“…The bored, distracted visage, the roughness of the flesh, and the flatness of the breasts are rendered so that nothing invites the viewer to touch, gaze, or be aroused. Moreover, the manner in which the form occupies the foreground and fills the frame of the canvas metaphorically forbids the viewer to enter the space of the observed.”

Beggars, Havana. Cuba by Alice Neel (1926)
Beggars, Havana. Cuba by Alice Neel (1926)

In May 1925, Carlos returned to Colwyn to see Alice and he proposed to her.  She accepted and on June 1st 1925 the couple married.  Enrico wanted to take Alice back with him to Cuba but she was too nervous to leave her hometown.  Carlos was devastated and returned to Cuba alone.  At the start of 1926 he returned to Colwyn and by February he had convinced Alice to return with him to Cuba.  They travelled by overnight train to Key West in Florida and then took a six-hour trip on a ship to Havana.

Mother and Child Havana by Alice Neel (1926)
Mother and Child Havana by Alice Neel (1926)

The couple moved in with Enrico’s parents and then into their own apartment in the La Víbora district of Havana.  The couple exhibited works in the city.  On December 1926 Alice gave birth to their first child, Santillana del Mar Enríquez.  Sadly, the child only survived for seven months before dying of diphtheria, the same illness that had killed Alice’s eldest brother.

The couple frequently travel between Cuba and America before finally settling down in an apartment in West 81st Street in the West Side of Upper Manhattan in the autumn of 1927.  To help support her and her husband Alice took a job at a Greenwich Village bookstore owned by Fanya Foss whom she depicted in a 1930 portrait entitled Fanya.

Untitled (Woman with a Cat) by Alice Neel (1932)
Untitled (Woman with a Cat) by Alice Neel (1932)

Two years later Neel produced a painting which has been given the title Untitled (Woman with Cat) which is believed to be another depiction of Fanya Foss.

 Alice, her husband and their daughter moved from Manhattan to the Bronx at the end of 1927, shortly after which, her daughter, Santillana, died.

Alice Neel holding her daughter, Santillana (1927)
Alice Neel holding her daughter, Santillana (1927)

In November 1928, whilst living in the Bronx, Alice gave birth to her second child, a daughter, Isabella Lillian, who became known as Isabetta.   It was around this time that problems appeared with regards Alice and Enrquez’s relationship.  The couple had often planned to go to Paris but it had never happened.  However, in May 1930 Enriquez, along with Isabetta, left America and travelled back to his parent’s home in Cuba.  His idea was to leave his daughter with his parents whilst he returned to America, collected Alice and for them both to head off to France.   Alice had agreed to the plan and had even sub-let their New York apartment and moved back in with her parents in Colwyn.  She also found work at the art studio of her friends, Ethel Ashton and Rhoda Meyers.  Everything seemed to be going to plan, but………

Well Baby Clinic by Alice Neel (1928)
Well Baby Clinic by Alice Neel (1928)

On reflection, Enriquez who was still in Cuba realised that the money he and Alice had saved was not enough to fund their joint trip to Paris and he then made the decision to go to the French capital on his own, leaving Isabetta in the charge of his two sisters.   One can only imagine what Alice Neel thought of this decision.  She tried to immerse herself into her painting but it didn’t prove enough to distract her from what her husband had done and the “loss” of her daughter.   In August 1930 Alice Neel suffered a nervous breakdown whilst at her family home.  One can get a feel for how she was feeling by her handwritten note:

“…Carlos went away. The nights were horrible at first … I dreamed Isabetta died and we buried her right beside Santillana….”

Portraits of their daughter Isabetta by Carlos Enríquez (left) and Alice Neel in Nexus New York at El Museo del Barrio
Portraits of their daughter Isabetta by Carlos Enríquez (left) and Alice Neel in Nexus New York at El Museo del Barrio

Alice Neel’s mental condition deteriorated and in October she was admitted to the Orthopaedic Hospital in Philadelphia where she remained over the Christmas period.  Her husband, by this time, must have been concerned with his wife’s health for he returned to America and made a few hospital visits.  Alice’s parents agreed to take her out of the hospital and looked after her in the family home in Colwyn but this proved a bad decision as shortly after her return home Alice attempted to kill herself by gassing herself in the house’s gas oven.  She was taken away and admitted to the Wilmington Hospital in Delaware.  Following a further attempt to kill herself whilst in hospital she was transferred to the suicide ward of the Philadelphia General Hospital.

One has no idea what was going through her husband’s mind at the time but in the Spring of 1931 he decided to leave America and his sick wife and he returned to Paris.  Alice was transferred to the suicide ward of the local Gladwyne Colony sanatorium where she was encouraged to continue with her painting as a sort of therapy.  She was finally released from hospital in September 1931, almost thirteen months after her initial breakdown.  Once discharged from hospital she reacquainted herself with her friend Nadia Olyanova and her Norwegian Merchant Marine husband, Egil, who were now living in New Jersey.  It was during one of her visits to her friends that September, that she meets a friend of theirs, another Merchant Marine, Kenneth Doolittle.

Kenneth Dolittle by Alice Neel (1931)
Kenneth Dolittle by Alice Neel (1931)

In 1931 she painted a portrait of him.  We see him, fully clothed, sitting upright in a chair, staring out at us.  His penetrating gaze is somewhat unsettling.  He frowns and one gets the impression that he was not a willing sitter for Neel.  His face is pale grey and lined.  His facial expression is grim and unfriendly.  The paleness of the depiction is only offset by the slight tinge of red of his nose and the stark red colour of his tie which immediately attracts our attention.  Alice’s liaison with Doolittle was to prove another disaster in her choice of companion!

…………………………… to be continued.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I have used numerous internet sources to put together this and the following blogs on the life and art of Alice Neel and I am currently reading a fascinating book about the artist by Phoebe Hoban entitled Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty. It is a very interesting read and one I can highly recommend.

Alice Neel’s art is being shown in a number of exhibitions in America but there are also a series of exhibitions of her work travelling around Europe at the current time:

Painter of Modern Life at the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

(June 10th – October 2nd 2016)

and at the

Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag, Holland

(November 5th, 2016 – February 12th 2017)

Alice Neel. Part 1 – The early days

Alice Neel (1900 - 1984)
Alice Neel (1900 – 1984)

My artist today is a twentieth century American artist, who although maybe not as well known as Georgia O’Keeffe or Frida Kahlo, was once described as one of the great figurative painters of the twentieth century.   The definition of “figurative art”, which is sometimes given an “–ism” as being figurativism, is any form of modern art that retains strong references to the real world and particularly to the human figure.

The subjects of her paintings ranged from her family, and friends to a mish-mash of writers, poets, artists, students, textile salesmen, psychologists, cabaret singers, and homeless bohemians. It was this unconventional assortment that became a kind of dialogue with, the city in which she lived. Her works were often acute observations, often humorous, of political and social issues, including topics such as gender, racial inequality, and labour struggles. Her work served as a social chronicle of New York and America in the twentieth century. She is known primarily for her portraits of her many friends, lovers, family members and art-world acquaintances. The depictions of these people are sometimes emotionally penetrating and often somewhat brutal. Today I am examining the life and work of Alice Neel.

Alice Neel's parents (c.1907)
Alice Neel’s parents (c.1907)

Alice Hartley Neel was born on January 28th 1900 in Gladwyne Pennsylvania. Her father was George Washington Neel, a clerk for the Superintendent Car service of the Pennsylvania Railroad, who descended from a family of steamship owners and opera singers. Her mother was Alice Concross Hartley who maintained she was a descendant of Richard Stockton, one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Alice referred to her father as a “little gray man” who was completely controlled by his wife. Alice was the fourth of five children. She had three brothers, Hartley, the eldest of the siblings who died aged eight, around the time of Alice’s birth, two younger brothers, Albert and Peter and a sister, Lilian. Soon after Alice was born the family moved to Colwyn in Darby Township, a borough in Delaware County, lying just west of Philadelphia. It was in Colwyn that Alice Neel went to the local primary school and in 1914 to Darby High School.

Alice Neel, aged 5 (1905)
Alice Neel, aged 5 (1905)

So what did Alice think of life in Colwyn? An insight into her thoughts about her early life came in 1983, a year before she died, when she described her life in the small Pennsylvanian town:

“…I lived in the little town of Colwyn, Pennsylvania, where everything happened, but there was no artist and no writer. We lived on a street that had been a pear orchard. And it was utterly beautiful in the spring, but there was no artist to paint it. And once a man exposed himself at a window, but there was no writer to write it. The grocer’s wife committed suicide after the grocer died, but there was no writer to write that. There was no culture there. I hated that little town. I just despised it. And in the summer I used to sit on the porch and try to keep my blood from circulating. That’s why my own kids had a much better life than I had. Because boredom was what killed me…”

 Alice looked up to her mother as being the dominant parent. In an interview with Ted Castle for the October 1983 Artforum journal she commented on this dominant position in her mother and father’s marriage:

 “…My mother was the real head-of-the-household type. My father didn’t even care to be boss. He was a nice philosophic person. I was more interested in my mother because she was bright, she knew more and she was quicker on the draw…”

In Eleanor Munro’s 2000 book, Originals, American Woman Artists, Alice Neel’s comments about her mother are quoted:

“…She had a strong independent character, stronger than I, but she was terribly nervous. She could have done anything, run a big business establishment. She was very well-read and very intelligent, and she had a terrific capacity, but she couldn’t compromise…”

So, even though she accepted that her mother was the influential parent, she also had to accept some negative comments from her. Alice recalled how she once told her mother that she wanted to become an artist only to be told:

“…I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, Alice. You are only a girl…”

 Alice’s mother’s comments probably derived from her own mother’s jaundiced attitude to women, who believed women had no important role in life. Despite her mother’s views, Alice was not to be deterred. Alice had always liked drawing and painting as a child. In her 1983 biography of Alice Neel, Patricia Hills recalls how despite the many put-downs by her mother, Alice knew what she wanted to be.

“…I always wanted to be an artist. I don’t know where it comes from. When I was eight years old the most important thing for me was the painting book and the watercolours. When I was very small about five or six, my most important Christmas present would be a colouring book…”

In 1914 Alice attended the Darby High School and four years later, in June 1918, when she was eighteen years old, she graduated. Her family decided that a career in the civil service would be good for her and would also help the family financially. She attended a business course including typing and stenography and then sat and passed the civil service exam and was given a secretarial post with the Army Air Corps in Philadelphia. She remained there for three years at the end of which she was offered a secretarial position at  Swarthmore College, a private liberal arts college, but she rejected the offer deciding to spend the summer with her sister, Lilly, who lived in Pittsburgh.

Alice Neel aged 17 (1917)
Alice Neel aged 17 (1917)

Alice’s greatest love was her art and whilst working as a civil servant she attended evening classes at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia. This establishment, now a university, known as the University of the Arts (UArts) is one of the oldest schools of art or music in the United States.  In November 1921, after three years as a civil servant Alice had managed to save a little money and this was enough to cover the cost of enrolling at an art college and for the first year’s tuition.

Philadelphia had two main art establishments, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. She thought very carefully about which to choose but eventually decided to apply to the latter. She cited four main reasons for her choice. Firstly, she preferred to go to an all-women school so not to be pestered by amorous boys. Secondly the Pennsylvania Academy, being the alma mater of Mary Cassatt was a great believer of teaching art à la Impressionism and furthermore she was not a great admirer of Renoir-like art. Another reason was that she had heard the teaching at the Academy was very strict and deviating from their artistic teaching was anathema and one has to remember that she was already showing signs of being rebellious.  Finally the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (Now the Moore College of Art and Design) offered two courses, one in Fine Arts and the other in commercial design and it was this latter course she told her parents she was going to take. This allowed them to believe that their daughter had a plan for her future as a paid illustrator after completing the course, and that they were happy with. However after a short period she switched to the Fine Arts course, which was her great love, but didn’t tell her parents until later. Her savings paid for her first year’s education and because she proved such a talented student she received the Delaware County Scholarship, which enabled her to afford the second and third year fees.

Alice Neel xxThe Philadelphia School of Design for Women was founded in 1850 and it became the largest school for women. The long-time director of the school, between 1886 and 1920, was Elaine Sartain, the American painter and engraver, whose father, John Sartain, had served on the board as vice president for years. One thing Elaine Sartain will be remembered for was her decision to allow life-drawing classes at the School albeit using draped male and nude women models. However this introduction of life drawing classes was uncommon for women artists at the time.  The new Dean, Harriet Sartain, Elaine Sartain’s sister-in-law, had interviewed Alice for a place at the school.

Alice and her sister Lilly (1921)
Alice and her sister Lilly (1921)

Alice Neel studied landscape painting under Henry Snell, the London-born American Impressionist painter.   Snell was a member of the New Hope, Pennsylvania School of Landscape Painting. He taught at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women from 1899 to 1943, and often took his art class students abroad during the summer, sometimes visiting his native England, spending time at the art colony of St. Ives on the coast of Cornwall.   Alice also attended portraiture and life-drawing classes run by Rae Sloan Bredin, an American artist who was a member of the New Hope, Pennsylvania School of Impressionists.  One of her favourite tutors was the Leipzig-born American painter Paula Balano who taught drawing and anatomy. In Patricia Hills book Alice Neel the author quotes Alice with regards Balano:

“…There was one very good teacher, a woman Paula Balano, who used to design stained glass windows for a living. And she was great because she taught you to draw and she taught anatomy at the same time, so it wasn’t just the cold medical stuff of anatomy. She would teach you, for instance, that the bone ends here. The mouth has a circular thing like a rubber band, so when you get old it is pursed in. She was great. She once said to me, ‘The things that are hard for other people are easy for you, but the easy things, you can’t do…”

Alice
Alice

Alice’s love of art and her determination ensured she did well, gaining a number of awards for her portraiture. In the summer of 1924 Alice attended the summer school at Chester Springs organised by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Here students were able to take part in portrait classes as well as landscape drawing classes. Whilst she attended the summer school, Alice met and became friends with a fellow artist, Carlos Enriquez Gomez.

This was a meeting which changed her life and not ultimately for the better

………………………….to be continued

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The lack of Alice Neel’s paintings in this blog is for the reason that she really didn’t start painting seriously until the mid 1920’s and therefore in forthcoming blogs when I follow her life, I will introduce you to some of her wonderful paintings.

I have used numerous internet sources to put together this and the following blogs on the life and art of Alice Neel and I am currently reading a fascinating book about the artist by Phoebe Hoban entitled Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty. It is a very interesting read and one I can highly recommend.

Alice Neel’s art is being shown in a number of exhibitions in America but there are also a series of exhibitions of her work travelling around Europe at the current time:

Painter of Modern Life at the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

(June 10th – October 2nd 2016)

and at the

Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag, Holland

(November 5th, 2016 – February 12th 2017)