Alice Neel (1900–1984) was one of the most significant American painters of the 20th century. Her psychologically charged portraits tell intimate and unconventional stories, as much about people living on the margins of society and in subcultures as about the New York cultural elite and her own family. Alice Neel led an exceptionally interesting life as a single parent and a feminist in a time when the world of art was largely male-dominated.
Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki
Alice Neel Exhibition 10.6.2016 – 2.10.2016
Alice spent the summer of 1934 with her mother and father in a cottage at Spring Lake, New Jersey, a short distance from the beach. She was still with John Rothschild, who had help fund the buying of the single storey, red-shingle cottage in 1935 and he, besotted with Alice, had left his second wife in the summer of that year. Sadly for John, it was a one-way relationship as she was often very rude to him and would often refer to him as the “money man” but she would never dispense of his company even when she had other love interests, and to be fair to her, he too had many other affairs whilst being close to Alice.
Neel completed a portrait of John in 1935 entitled John with Hat in which we see him in a white suit wearing a hat with the sea as the background. In an interview with Patricia Hills in 1982, Neel talked about the painting and voiced her dislike of Rothschild’s character:
“…I painted him in a hat, that’s when I decided to get rid of him……I thought anybody that could take that much joy out of the hat and suit, there was something wrong with him……He was utterly empty. He really had the makings of a voyeur in that way…”
Of course she didn’t dump John. Maybe sense prevailed or as she put it:
“…But I didn’t really get rid of him because he kept pursuing me and I had such a hard life that it was very nice to go to Longchamps or the Harvard club for dinner…”
It was the 1930’s and America at this time was in the middle of the Great Depression and the labour classes were suffering badly. One of the great poets and novelist of the time, who encapsulated in his work those desperate times, was Kenneth Fearing and he was depicted in a 1935 painting by Alice Neel. Fearing was a fervent left wing radical and Marxist and co-founder of the Partisan Review, a literary and arts magazine with close ties with the Communist Party, USA. He championed the cause of the downtrodden worker and is depicted in one of his favourite haunts, a late night coffee shop. Fearing is illuminated by a single lightbulb, a symbol of enlightenment and modernism. It is a painting of symbolist iconography. We see him wearing his large artsy-type glasses, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, reading a book which is propped up in front of him. Alice Neel depicted a skeleton squeezing blood out of Fearing’s heart, which was meant to symbolise his heartfelt feelings for all the people who were suffering during the troubled times of the Depression. Fearing may not have been impressed by this iconography as when he saw the work he told Neel to remove what he termed “that Fauntleroy” from his heart. However, Neel was adamant about the inclusion saying:
“…The reason I put it there was that even though he wrote ironic poetry, I thought his heart bled for the grief of the world…”
There are a number of minor “characters” depicted in the work including, in the foreground, a baby, which was said to be Fearing’s son who was born that year, and a newlywed couple. The rest of the cast of characters formed part of a tormented world, a world of disorder and chaos, which we see going on around Fearing whilst he quietly reads his book. In the foreground there are some disfigured soldiers and bleeding corpses. In the right background we can see police beating civilians.
Another communist to feature in one of Neel’s 1935 paintings was the Irish labour organiser, Pat Whalen, a longshoreman who had organised many dock strikes. He sits at a bare wooden table in his creased and shabby coat and open-necked shirt. The background is bare. This painting is all about the man and his face, his furrowed brow and piercing blue eyes. She depicts him staring into the middle-distance of a promised future, his heavy, oversized fists clenched over a copy of the Daily Worker, which was the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) newspaper.
In September 1935, Alice Neel moved alone to an apartment in West 17th Street in New York. She would not countenance John moving in with her so he moved to his own apartment close by. Alice would return to Spring Lake every summer but not to the small cottage but to a larger house she bought later. It was shortly after her arrival in New York that Alice and John Rothschild visited the nightclub, La Casita, and there, performing in a band, was José Santiago Négrón a handsome Puerto Rican nightclub singer and guitarist. Alice was immediately attracted to the “beautiful Latino”. He was slender, dark and handsome. He was also ten years younger than Alice and was married with a young child, Sheila. Alice acknowledged the similarity between him and her first husband as quoted by Cindy Nemser, the American art historian and writer and founder and editor of the Feminist Art Journal:
“…You know what he was? He was a substitute for my Cuban husband although he was completely different…”
During an interview with the American art historian Patricia Hills, Neel recounted that first meeting with Negron and her successful seduction of the Puerto Rican:
“…I went to the nightclub with John [Rothschild] and I had on a silver lame dress that was beautiful and José was charmed with all this wealth and elegance. Toward José I made my one aggressive action. I went down there one night, to that nightclub, and I knew José was going to want to come home with me, and he did…”
In a very short time Negron left his wife Molly and child Sheila and moved in with Alice.
In September 1936 Alice Neel completed a work entitled Nazis Murdered Jews in which she depicts a Communist organised torchlight protest at which she and some of her Works Progress Administration (WPA) colleagues took part. Neel was one of the few artists of the time that highlighted the fate of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
Tragedy once again struck Alice in 1937. In January that year she became pregnant, much to her delight but much to the prospective father, José Negrón’s displeasure. He threatened to leave her. In July, six months into the pregnancy she had a miscarriage. Her unborn daughter had been strangled by her own umbilical cord. Add to this heartbreak, the fact that Alice and José had money problems and this was also causing stress to their relationship. Notwithstanding this, Alice became pregnant again at the end of 1938. She must have been in a quandary as to what to do as it is known that her friend John Rothschild gave her money for an abortion and although she accepted the gift, she spent it on a phonograph!
The imminent birth of her child made Alice and José abandon the bohemian life of Greenwich Village and move to a quieter apartment in East 107th Street in the Spanish Harlem neighbourhood of Upper Manhattan and it is in this area where she would remain for the next twenty-four years. This neighbourhood proved a wonderful place for her to paint pictures of her surroundings and the many characters who lived there.
Life with José Negrón was good. In a 1969 interview she mused joyfully about those days referring to her then unborn child:
“…I was out in nightclubs every night. I did the tango, the rhumba, all those dances. Richard is the product of nightclubs…”
On September 14th 1939 Alice gave birth to her first son. Alice and José called him Neel Santiago but this strange combination of Christian name and surname, Neel Neel, was later dropped and he became known as Richard Neel. In December 1935, less than three months after the birth of his son, José Negrón walked out of the relationship with Neel, This was the second time he did this, having left his wife Molly and their daughter, Stella, to live with Alice. José Negrón’s nephew Ralph Marrero commented on the relationship break-up:
“…I don’t think Alice was interested in staying in touch with José. Alice was more interested in her art and José was interested in himself…”
Alice put a different spin on the event in an interview with Jonathan Brand in 1969. She stated:
“…Of course José should never have done what he did. It was wrong…..He never should have left like that. I could have tried to stop him but the whole thing sickened me. I thought it was so frivolous. We had lived together for five years…..why pick this time when this little kid is maybe four or five months old and just leave like that? I thought it was frightful…”
José Negrón had never married Alice but would later go on to marry two more times and, although born a Catholic, ended up becoming an Episcopal priest.
One of the most moving paintings Alice Neel did featuring José Negrón’s family was one entitled T.B. Harlem which she completed in 1940, a year after José had left the family home. It was a painting which drew attention to the poverty and social isues of the time and yet never lost sight of the individuality of the sitter. In this painting, Neel depicted José’s brother Carlos Negrón. Carlos was just twenty-four at the time of the painting and had, two years earlier, moved from Puerto Rico to Spanish Harlem. At this time tuberculosis spread in overcrowded urban neighbourhoods, and at the time of the painting, the only available treatments to counteract the disease were radical. In the painting we see Carlos with a bandage on his chest covering the wound from his thoracoplasty, a procedure that was originally designed to permanently collapse the cavities of pulmonary tuberculosis by removing the ribs from the chest and by so doing, rest the tuberculosis-infected lung by removing ribs. Although it is a good likeness of Carlos, Neel distorted and elongated his neck and arms. In the painting Alice has used heavy, dark lines to emphasize and flatten Carlos’ silhouette and the lines around his wound draw attention to the sunken misshapenness of his left side. Carlos’ face conveys a sense of dignity. His right hand lies across his chest in a pose which we saw in traditional images of the martyred Christ.
………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)