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Alice Neel profile of an Artist

Updated on March 10, 2015

Alice Neel was born on 8 March 1900, Pennsylvania, Merion Square, the daughter of George Washington Neel a veteran of the American Civil War. Alice Concross Hartley, her mother, whose family had been a direct decedent of a signer, who had signed the Declaration of Independence.

In 1918, Neel’s first job was with the Army Air Corps as a secretary after she graduated from Darby Highschool. At the same time, she enrolled in evening classes at The School of Industrial Art, Pennsylvania. In 1921, Neel decided not to accept a job as a secretary at Swarthmore College, after realising her dream of becoming an artist. She applied and was accepted at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women on a fine art program. 1922, while Neel was studying she painted the portrait of Joe Gould a well-known author. In 1923, while still studying on the course she won her first award, in the portrait class, the Francisca Naiade Balane Award. The following year she won the same award including the Kern Dodge Prize, in the still life class.

Continuing with her learning she met a young man named Carlos Enriquez, a Cuban whom she later married in 1925. After they both completed their courses they both spent a year in Havana, Cuba. Neel became pregnant with her first daughter, however in 1930 Neel and her husband separated, Enriquez took their daughter with him to Cuba. Suffering from depression and suicidal feelings Neel struggled to cope with the situation she was in, eventually it lead to a nervous breakdown. After she was hospitalised, it took two years for her to properly recover from the traumatic experience. Leaving the hospital she started painting again and by the mid-1930’s she was organising small exhibitions. Many of her exhibitions had numerous landscapes and still life paintings displayed. Neel used art to express her political views at the time, as shown in her 1933 paint of ‘The Synthesis of New York-The Great Depression‘. Three years later her painting titled ‘Nazi Murder Jews’ again expressing her view Germany in the 1930‘s. Two years later in 1935, Poet Kenneth Fearing and Communist leader Pat Whalen both had portraits painted by Neel. During the 1930‘s Neel painted less artwork, like many American she struggled financially during the Great Depression.

Displaying her artwork at a major exhibition at the ACA gallery in the early 1950’s, fortunately for Neel this sparked the public’s interest in her work. And four years later Neel again exhibited her paintings at the ACA gallery, by now she was quickly becoming a successful artist. In the 1960’s Neel has by now become an established artist, painting portraits of well people some of whom included Andy Warhol, Joseph Papp, and Aaron Copeland. Her painting during the sixties also included ordinary people as well as satirical portraits of Art dealers and Historians. Increased interest in the Woman’s Movement in her paintings in the 1970’s only furthered her popularity in America. Neel was appointed as a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, in 1976. In the 1980’s Neel was painting less and less which partly due to her failing health and eyesight. In 1981, her work went on display at a gallery in Moscow; it was the first time ever that a living American artist had her work exhibited in Russia. Neel died of cancer in 1984, as she rarely sold her any of her paintings; she left behind a legacy not just of artwork but as an underrated artist who overcame difficulties throughout her life. In doing so, she achieved high acclaim as an exceptional artist of the twentieth century.


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