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)

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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