An Exhibition of Portraits by Alice Neel Essay

An Exhibition of Portraits by Alice Neel Essay

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An Exhibition of Portraits by Alice Neel


An exhibition of portraits of the family by Alice Neel, one of the finest painters of her generation, is at the Norton Museum of Art February 14 through March 29, 1998. Both critics and the subjects of her paintings have written of Neel's ability to portray the dynamics of relationships. Kinships focuses on particular family relationships: siblings, domestic pairs, parents and children, and members of her own family. The exhibition was organized by the Tacoma Art Museum, and is sponsored by The Elizabeth Norton Society.

Born in 1900, Alice Neel worked as a figurative painter during the decades of WPA realism, postwar abstract expressionism, and 1970s minimalism. She persevered in her work despite a turbulent personal life that included a year of hospitalization after a nervous breakdown, the destruction in 1934 of over two hundred and fifty paintings and drawings, and little attention to her work until the 1960s. Her art demonstrates a vigorous working manner, an unsparing skill in observation and a generous tolerance for the unpredictability of human nature.

Neel disliked being called a portraitist, but rather labeled herself as a "collector of souls." She believed that each person has an identity, an essential core of personality, and it was this that she sought to reveal in her paintings. She often captured aspects of relationships of which her subjects were not aware, and combined in her work her stringent analysis of their interactions with a broad acceptance of the depth of human emotions. She painted her subjects as distinct individuals, in the poses that were natural to them; poses that, in Neel's words, "involve ... all their character and social standing ... what the world has done to them, and their retaliation."

The compositions, as well as the subjects' body language, of such works as The Black Spanish American Family or Annemarie and Georgia, allows the viewer to observe how family members draw together tenderly or reluctantly, look away, touch one another, draw back, or open up. The arms of the parents often encircle their children in Neel's paintings. The early Mother and Child, Havana, 1926, uses this pose to depict a simple, secure relationship.

However, in later works, such as Mother and Child (Nancy and Olivia), 1967, the poses are more attuned to the ambivalent emotions present in...


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...t on Neel's own art. No better evidence exists than her portraits of pregnant nudes. It was a subject she first approached in 1964, ultimately painting a total of seven such portraits, with Evans's being her last. The subject had a powerful resonance at a time when women were newly educating themselves about the form and function of their anatomies. The Boston Women's Health Book Collective published Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1973, while Adrienne Rich's classic Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution appeared in 1976. As opportunities for women widened dramatically, debate and discussion about their biological destinies and responsibilities intensified. Neel's paintings of pregnant women offered no clear opinions or solutions. But, in retrospect, as with all of Neel's best work, Margaret Evans Pregnant endures as both a portrait of a person and a picture of a time.

Ann Temkin is the Muriel and Philip Berman curator of modern and contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She organized the Alice Neel exhibition that opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art next month and travels to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, February 18 through April 15, 2001.

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