Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Colwyn, Delaware County
Twentieth century painter Alice Neel grew up in Colwyn.
Alice Neel, an artist and painter throughout most of her 84 years of life, was born in 1900 in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and attended art school in Central City, Philadelphia, from 1921-1925. Garnering criticism because her style of portraiture did not conform of much of the art culture of the times, Neel never changed her approach and the majority of her work is full body portraits, many in the nude. Having created more than three thousand pieces of artwork, Neel may be most well-known for her depiction of Andy Warhol. In the late part of her life, Neel was awarded the National Women’s Caucus for Art award. Alice Neel’s artwork has been exhibited in countless galleries over the course of her life and after her death in 1984.
Born on January 28, 1900, in Merion Square, Pennsylvania, to a middle-class Philadelphia family, Alice Neel was the third of four children. Her mother was Alice Concross Hartley, a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence with conservative views about women’s roles who once said to her daughter, “I don’t know what you expect to do with your life, you’re only a girl.” Her father was George Washington Neel, a Civil War Veteran and clerk for the Pennsylvania Railroad. When she was three-months-old, Neel’s parents and family moved to Colwyn, in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, where she attended high school. In 1921, after graduating from high school three years before, Alice Neel enrolled in the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art) in Center City, Philadelphia. After attending the Chester Springs summer school of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the summer of 1924, Neel met Carlos Enriquez, who she married in 1925, the same year she graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. On January 26, 1926, while living in Havana, Cuba with Enriquez, Neel gave birth to daughter Santillana (who died at 11 months of age from diphtheria). On November 24, 1928, Neel and Enriquez’ second daughter Isabella (called Isabetta) was born in New York.
On May 1, 1930, Carlos Enriquez left with his and Neel’s daughter for a visit to Cuba, and after one visit in 1933, they never returned to the U.S. Alice Neel never saw Enriquez or her daughter Isabetta again. On August 15 of the same year, following a successful and productive summer of painting, Neel suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. Over the next year, Neel spent significant time in hospitals after attempting suicide. During 1931, Alice Neel met Kenneth Doolittle, a man with whom she moved to Greenwich Village, New York City, and who, three years later, burned approximately 350 pieces of her artwork, including paintings, watercolors, and drawings.
In 1932, after moving to New York City, Alice Neel participated in Washington Square Outdoor Art Show. In December of the following year, Neel enrolled in the Public Works Art Project (PWAP), a government program set up during the Great Depression to support artists by paying them $30 a week in exchange for generating one painting every six weeks. That year, Neel was also featured in an exhibition at the Boyer Gallery in Philadelphia. Her paintings of the 1930s commenced Neel’s exploration of portraiture that she continued through her lifetime. Her collection of works includes almost entirely portraits, sitting very simply on a couch or chair, with limited to no other objects or distractions in the paintings. While all of her paintings are not completely realistic in the appearance of the subjects, Alice Neel skillfully and beautifully captures the essence of her subjects’ bodies and emotions. From 1935 through 1943, Alice Neel was a part of the WPA/Federal Art Project, Easel Division in New York City. In 1938, she moved to Spanish Harlem where she remained for 24 years. Neel was featured in an exhibition held by The New York Art Group at the ACA Gallery in New York that year, and over the course of her living in Spanish Harlem, Neel painted her neighbors, along with creating paintings with heightened social and political awareness, including the “prophetic” painting Nazis Murder Jews (1936), a painting which depicts a communist torchlight march through Manhattan streets with red signs with the communist symbol and eerie faces of marchers and people walking, which disappeared and was rediscovered almost fifty years later.
In September of 1939 and 1941, respectively, Neel gave birth to sons Richard (by musician Carlos Santiago) and Hartley (by a different father). In 1946, Neel’s father passed away and eight years later, in 1954, she lost her mother. Between the mid-1940s and early 1960s, Neel participated in New York exhibitions and reviews by art journals and magazines. In 1959, she appeared in Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy, a 28 minute short film adapted from a Jack Kerouac stage play. The movie, also released under the title The Beat Generation, a name introduced by Kerouac to describe his writer friends including Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William Burroughs, in general describing their underground, anti-conformist lifestyle in New York City. The film stars Alice Neel as the mother of a young bishop who comes to the friends’ house for dinner, only to be goaded by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, starring as themselves.
Because Alice Neel’s works did not conform to art world fashions of the times, her early work received minimal attention. Neel remained a figurative artist when the culture of art changed from abstract expressionism and realism to minimalism of the 1970s. She was criticized because she lived her life against existing theories that women could not or should not be artists, as well as the fact that a significant number of her paintings were of nudes, showing honest depictions of individual appearances, but showed intense and true emotions. Art reviewer Pamela Allara explains in the Brandeis Review that Alice Neel was “a radical, both in her unwavering commitment to a politically-concerned art and in her unprecedented address of taboo subjects in American culture.” Many of her subjects were people Neel knew or was friends with. It was not until the 1960s that significant attention was paid to her work. While she had been continuously painting through her early life, well over half of Neel’s known works were created after the start of the 1960s. In addition, the decades following this shift resulted in many, many exhibitions, public appearances (including two appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson) and art reviews.
In 1969, Neel received an Arts and Letters award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in New York. The following year, Alice Neel painted a now famous portrait of Andy Warhol, which many consider to be a masterpiece. Clothed only from the waist down, Warhol is depicted with his eyes closed (one of Neel’s only subjects painted this way), with the painting exposing scars on his body from recent gun shots fired at him. In 1971, Neel was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from her alma mater Moore College of Art (formerly the Philadelphia School of Design for Women) and in 1976, she was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1979, Alice Neel received a National Women’s Caucus for Art award for outstanding achievement in art, presented to her by President Jimmy Carter. Famous for asking her subjects (called “sitters”) to pose nude, in 1980, when Neel painted her only self-portrait, it was, unsurprisingly, a painting of her naked, showing the reality of her body at eighty.
Throughout the later years of her life, along with creating some paintings and being shown in exhibitions, Alice Neel spent time with her family, her two sons both married and with children. In addition, Neel traveled to many countries and continents with her sons, including Europe, Mexico, Russia, Greece, and Africa. In New York City, on October 13, 1984, Alice Neel died at the age of 84. Along with the numerous exhibitions of Neel’s work in her lifetime, the paintings Alice Neel created throughout her career are still being exhibited in galleries around the country and around the world.
Kenneth Doolittle, 1931. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.
Joe Gould. 1933. Tate Gallery, London, UK.
Max White, 1935. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.
Nazis Murder Jews, 1936. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.
Hartley, 1965. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
T.B Harlem. 1940. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C.
Andy Warhol. 1970. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City.
Lucille Rhodes, 1976. Victoria Miro Gallery, London, UK.
Olivia, 1980. David Floria Gallery. Aspen, Colorado.
Self Portrait. 1980. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
Nancy and Olivia, 1982. Sragow Gallery, New York.
Pull My Daisy. Dir. Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie. Perf. Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, Peter Orlovsky, Jack Kerouac. 1959.