When I started my art practice at the age of 35, I did portraits. I was inspired by Modigliani and others but one of my very favorites was the work of Alice Neel. I liked her story. She lived in Greenwich Village in the 30’s and was part of a generation of bohemian artists and writers. During the 40’s and 50’s she worked outside of the mainstream in Spanish Harlem, where she developed a uniquely individual approach to portraiture in a time dominated by abstraction. Neel’s outspoken personality and her daringly honest portraits made her a cult figure in the art community. I had the rare chance to see her work in person at the Walker Art Center.
Neel’s estate maintains a website for her, with a bio on its home page that labels her a pioneer, an apt description – for she was a brave painter. She went her own way, no matter what the rest of the art world did and no matter what the world said.
Marlene Dumas, a South African artist and painter describes how Neel painted modern portraits, locating her subjects. Dumas writes:
…She painted people.
Most figurative painting is not about people and seldom about “characters.” Philip Guston painted cartoons. Warhol painted public images. Chuck Close uses portraiture to paint about painting; Alex Katz paints the cool; and Elizabeth Peyton paints dreams…
Dumas also notes that ”the unflattering criticism she received about her nude self-portrait at age eighty [below] is unforgivably stupid.”
I have this book on Alice Neel and recommend it highly.