Alice Neel. Part 5. Sam Brody, the new man in her life, family portraits and “he said, she said”

It is almost five weeks since I published Alice Neel.  Part 4 and the reason for the delay was not my lost interest in the subject but having to suffer the trauma of house moving!

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Alice Neel and Sam Brody (1940)
Alice Neel and Sam Brody (1940)

The year was 1940 and another man entered Alice Neel’s life.  He was the photographer and film critic Sam Brody.  Brody was born in London on New Year’s Day 1907.  His parents were Abraham and Sophie Brodetsky (later shortened to Brody).  He was raised by Russian Jewish parents who had immigrated to America in 1920, via Paris and London when Sam was thirteen years old.  His father was a journeyman tailor who eked out a living in various sweatshops and he and his family struggled financially and maybe because of this lifestyle Brody’s father was a great believer of Marxism, a philosophy he would pass on to his son who would cling to those beliefs for the rest of his life.

The Workers Film and Photo League
The Workers Film and Photo League

Sam Brody was a founding member of the Workers Film and Photo League (WFPL) which was an organization of filmmakers, photographers and writers which began in 1931 dedicated to using film and photography for social change and presenting, in a documentary-format, the Great Depression from a Marxist perspective. These documentaries focused on the burning issues of the time such as the U.S. Labour Movement, the National Hunger marches of 1931 and 1932 and the Bonus March 1932. Much of the output was not for general release was shown more at Communist Party and trade union events.  There was also a philanthropic aspect to the work of the WFPL organisation as they joined up with Workers International Relief group to show their films at fund raising events.

Sam, Snow (How like Winter) by Alice Neel (1945)
Sam, Snow (How like Winter) by Alice Neel (1945)

It was in January 1940 that Alice Neel met Sam Brody at a Works Progress Administration (WPA) meeting.  Alice was introduced to him by her friend, the sculptor, Blanche Angel, who told her that Brody was an excellent photographer and would be an ideal choice to take some photos of her new son, Richard. This was just two months after her lover and father of her new-born child, José Negron had walked out the family home.  According to Alice Neel, there was an immediate magnetism between her and Brody (not corroborated by Brody!) and she was very forthright in her 1959 interview with the photographer, Jonathan Brand about him and how she had attracted him:

“…He was such a show off, such and intellectual.  He came home with me that night.  And of course he fell in love with me immediately.  He was very gallant when he fell in love.  He brought me flowers, and he came every day.  He told me he had divorced his wife because she had an affair with a travelling salesman…”

Sadly for Alice, the last fact was not true.  However, a few weeks after their initial meeting Brody moved into Alice and her son’s East 107th Street New York apartment.  Although José, the father of Alice’s son had moved out he kept returning for visits in order to give Alice some money and during his visits, as Brody would angrily term it, he would “serenade” her with his guitar.  Brody’s anger with José relationship with Alice may seem reasonable to many but for the fact that he had lied to Alice with regards his marital status.  Brody had married a Russian woman Claire Gebiner in 1927 and the couple had two children, a son Julian and a daughter Mady.  Even when Brody moved in with Alice he would visit Claire and his family every afternoon.  For a long time neither Alice nor Claire knew of each other’s existence!

Sam and Hartley by Alice Neel
Sam and Hartley by Alice Neel

Alice was drawn to Sam Brody as she considered him to be an intellectual and believed in his fight for worker’s rights and his support for the downtrodden.  On the other hand, she soon realised that Brody had a fiery temperament and the two would have many fierce and passionate arguments which turned into unbridled screaming matches.  Ironically, despite Brody “two-timing” Alice and Claire, he was jealous of Alice’s previous relationships with the likes of John Rothschild and her previous lover and father of her child, José Negron and it was said that Brody and Rothschild had come to blows.  What is more sinister about Brody’s relationship with Alice was that he took out his jealousy on Alice’s son Richard whom he derived a violent dislike.  In the documentary Alice Neel, Richard Neel recalled this violence:

“…He used to kick me under the table all the time.  He kicked me under the table and one time I screwed up enough courage to say ‘Stop kicking me under the table’.  Well she [Alice] had to go out that evening and he beat me up.  He really did………. It was intermittent but it was physical violence and it was directed at Alice and it was certainly directed at me…”

Sam and Richard by Alice Neel (1940)
Sam and Richard by Alice Neel (1940)

Neel who was painfully aware of the treatment of her son by Brody painted a very moving picture of the two entitled Sam and Richard in 1940.  In the work we see a venomous looking Sam tightly grasping the terrified Richard.  Richard almost became blind due to dietary deficiencies when he was one-year old and this must have added to his pain.

In January 1941 Alice became pregnant with Sam Brody’s child and on September 3rd a son, Hartley Stockton Neel was born.  The joy of this birth was tempered by the fact that soon after the event Brody’s wife Claire caught sight of her husband wheeling the pram and lovingly lifting Hartley out of the carriage.  Claire, as one can imagine, was devastated.  Not only was her husband two-timing her but he had a child with another woman.

Phillip Bonosky, the writer and friend of Alice,  wrote about Sam Brody in his journal and described him and his behaviour towards Alice’s children:

“…A Jew…. who is obviously a pathological case of some sort.  I met both the boys [Richard and Hartley].  The eldest one [Richard] is almost totally blind as a result of a dietary deficiency when he was just one year or so old.  The youngest boy’s father [Brody] who seems to flit about the country pounces down on them from time to time and while he is there, he tortures and abuses the eldest child and showers psychopathic affection on the younger one, his own.  Alice herself is torn by her feelings for and against him and doesn’t know what to do…”

Hartley on the Rocking Horse by Alice Neel (1943)
Hartley on the Rocking Horse by Alice Neel (1943)

Hartley featured in a number of his mother’s paintings.  In a 1943 painting Hartley on the Rocking Horse we see her younger son on a rocking horse. Look at his facial expression.  Is it one of joy to be astride the horse?  I rather think his wide-eyed facial expression is not one of delight but more one of fear that he may fall off and he may have had to be coaxed to stay on the “beast”.  If you look carefully at the mirror in the background you will see that the artist has added a mirror-reflection of herself.

Richard at Age Five by Alice Neel (1946)
Richard at Age Five by Alice Neel (1946)

Two years later in 1945 Neel painted a portrait of her five-year old son, Richard entitled Richard Age Five. His troubled upbringing can be seen in the demeanour of the youngster.  Look carefully at the depiction.  See how he clings to the back of the chair.  Look at his wide-eyed expression.  There is a vulnerability about the child and knowing the background of his upbringing and his bad relationship with his mother’s lover, Brody, we can sympathise with what he had to endure.

Hartley with a Cat by Alice Neel (1967)
Hartley with a Cat by Alice Neel (1967)

Twenty-five-year-old Hartley appeared in another work painted by his mother in 1967 entitled Hartley with a Cat.

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

Alice gave birth to four children.  Her first-born child Santillana died of diphtheria just days before her first birthday and never featured in any of Alice’s paintings although there is a 1927 photographs of her and her mother.

Isabetta by Alice Neel (1934)
Isabetta by Alice Neel (1934)

Her second born child Isabetta, who was born in 1928, featured in just one painting by Neel and this 1934 work is a controversial depiction of the six-year old.  For those of you who have not read the early blogs on Alice Neel, Alice and her Cuban husband Carlos Enriquez had Isabetta in November 1928 but soon after Carlos took his daughter to live with his family in Cuba and Alice, who had a major mental breakdown and was hospitalised never regained custody of her daughter.  Neel was rarely given access to her daughter except on one occasion in 1934 when mother and daughter were together long enough to paint the most extraordinary and, some would say, scandalous portrait. The little girl stands naked with her hands planted firmly on her hips in what looks like a rebellious pose, one that makes it clear that despite what is offered to her to stand still, she is having none of it.  Isabetta defiantly focuses her fierce blue gaze fixes on her mother almost as if she is questioning why should she stand before her naked.  Look out the artist has depicted her child’s hands.  The fingers are claw-like giving the child a more sinister air.  What was going through Alice Neel’s mind when she painted this portrait?   I struggle to understand why a mother would depict her daughter in such a fashion.  Only she knows.

It is obvious to all mothers the trauma the loss of her child affected Alice but we should not discount the trauma the child suffered with the loss of her mother.  Did she feel abandoned?  Isabetta and her mother met once more when she was ten years old.  It was not a good visit maybe because Alice was heavily pregnant with Richard and Alice and Isabetta never bonded.  There were to be many traumatic times in Isabetta’s life including, when she was eighteen years old, her proposed nuptials were called off by her fiancé’s parents, two weeks before the wedding.  Maybe the separation from her mother and other setbacks she had to endure stayed with her all her life as in 1982, aged 54, she committed suicide. Her mother, Alice, was to die two years later.

Two Girls in Spanish Harlem by Alice Neel (1941)
Two Girls in Spanish Harlem by Alice Neel (1941)

Whilst living in the Spanish Harlem district of New York Alice painted many studies of the inhabitants such as her 1941 double portrait of two young girls, Carmen and Hilda entitled Two Girls in Spanish Harlem (Carmen and Hilda) which was a beautiful example of her artistic ability.

Spanish Family by Alice Neel (1943)
Spanish Family by Alice Neel (1943)

I particularly like her 1943 painting entitled Spanish Family which depicts a mother and her three children.  Look how Neel has portrayed the facial expressions of the four characters.  Words are not needed to express how they all feel.  None are smiling.  The mother looks despondent and we get a feel of what life must have been like for her during those hard times.

Fire Escape by Alice Neel (1948)
Fire Escape by Alice Neel (1948)

A 1948 painting by Neel, entitled Fire Escape, deviated from her normal figurative work and shows a tenement building close to where she lived.

Dead Father by Alice Neel (1946)
Dead Father by Alice Neel (1946)

On May 3rd 1946 Alice Neel’s father, George, died, aged eighty-two and the day following the funeral in Colwyn Alice painted his portrait, Dead Father. In Patricia Hills book Alice Neel, she quotes Alice talking about the painting:

“…He was a good and kind man and his head still looked noble.  I didn’t set out to memorize him, because I was too affected.  But the image printed itself…”

My Mother by Alice Neel (1946)
My Mother by Alice Neel (1946)

That same year Alice completed a painting of her newly-widowed mother.

My Mother by Alice Neel (1952)
My Mother by Alice Neel (1952)

Six years later, in 1952, she completed another depiction of her mother, Alice snr.

In the title of this blog I added “he said, she said”.  The reason for this is that most of the information I got for these blogs about Alice Neel came from the book Alice Neel.  The Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban and during my delving into the many internet sites about the artist I came across one by David Brody who was the son of Sam Brody and Sondra Herrera whom he married after his liaison with Alice Neel ended in 1958.  He was unhappy with what Phoebe Hoban had written about his father and for the sake of being even-handed I thought you should have a look at what he wrote:

http://www.sambrody.com/hoban.html

In my next blog I will take a final look at the paintings and life of this great American figurative artist.

 

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.

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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)