Alice Neel. Part 1 – The early days

Alice Neel (1900 - 1984)
Alice Neel (1900 – 1984)

My artist today is a twentieth century American artist, who although maybe not as well known as Georgia O’Keeffe or Frida Kahlo, was once described as one of the great figurative painters of the twentieth century.   The definition of “figurative art”, which is sometimes given an “–ism” as being figurativism, is any form of modern art that retains strong references to the real world and particularly to the human figure.

The subjects of her paintings ranged from her family, and friends to a mish-mash of writers, poets, artists, students, textile salesmen, psychologists, cabaret singers, and homeless bohemians. It was this unconventional assortment that became a kind of dialogue with, the city in which she lived. Her works were often acute observations, often humorous, of political and social issues, including topics such as gender, racial inequality, and labour struggles. Her work served as a social chronicle of New York and America in the twentieth century. She is known primarily for her portraits of her many friends, lovers, family members and art-world acquaintances. The depictions of these people are sometimes emotionally penetrating and often somewhat brutal. Today I am examining the life and work of Alice Neel.

Alice Neel's parents (c.1907)
Alice Neel’s parents (c.1907)

Alice Hartley Neel was born on January 28th 1900 in Gladwyne Pennsylvania. Her father was George Washington Neel, a clerk for the Superintendent Car service of the Pennsylvania Railroad, who descended from a family of steamship owners and opera singers. Her mother was Alice Concross Hartley who maintained she was a descendant of Richard Stockton, one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Alice referred to her father as a “little gray man” who was completely controlled by his wife. Alice was the fourth of five children. She had three brothers, Hartley, the eldest of the siblings who died aged eight, around the time of Alice’s birth, two younger brothers, Albert and Peter and a sister, Lilian. Soon after Alice was born the family moved to Colwyn in Darby Township, a borough in Delaware County, lying just west of Philadelphia. It was in Colwyn that Alice Neel went to the local primary school and in 1914 to Darby High School.

Alice Neel, aged 5 (1905)
Alice Neel, aged 5 (1905)

So what did Alice think of life in Colwyn? An insight into her thoughts about her early life came in 1983, a year before she died, when she described her life in the small Pennsylvanian town:

“…I lived in the little town of Colwyn, Pennsylvania, where everything happened, but there was no artist and no writer. We lived on a street that had been a pear orchard. And it was utterly beautiful in the spring, but there was no artist to paint it. And once a man exposed himself at a window, but there was no writer to write it. The grocer’s wife committed suicide after the grocer died, but there was no writer to write that. There was no culture there. I hated that little town. I just despised it. And in the summer I used to sit on the porch and try to keep my blood from circulating. That’s why my own kids had a much better life than I had. Because boredom was what killed me…”

 Alice looked up to her mother as being the dominant parent. In an interview with Ted Castle for the October 1983 Artforum journal she commented on this dominant position in her mother and father’s marriage:

 “…My mother was the real head-of-the-household type. My father didn’t even care to be boss. He was a nice philosophic person. I was more interested in my mother because she was bright, she knew more and she was quicker on the draw…”

In Eleanor Munro’s 2000 book, Originals, American Woman Artists, Alice Neel’s comments about her mother are quoted:

“…She had a strong independent character, stronger than I, but she was terribly nervous. She could have done anything, run a big business establishment. She was very well-read and very intelligent, and she had a terrific capacity, but she couldn’t compromise…”

So, even though she accepted that her mother was the influential parent, she also had to accept some negative comments from her. Alice recalled how she once told her mother that she wanted to become an artist only to be told:

“…I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, Alice. You are only a girl…”

 Alice’s mother’s comments probably derived from her own mother’s jaundiced attitude to women, who believed women had no important role in life. Despite her mother’s views, Alice was not to be deterred. Alice had always liked drawing and painting as a child. In her 1983 biography of Alice Neel, Patricia Hills recalls how despite the many put-downs by her mother, Alice knew what she wanted to be.

“…I always wanted to be an artist. I don’t know where it comes from. When I was eight years old the most important thing for me was the painting book and the watercolours. When I was very small about five or six, my most important Christmas present would be a colouring book…”

In 1914 Alice attended the Darby High School and four years later, in June 1918, when she was eighteen years old, she graduated. Her family decided that a career in the civil service would be good for her and would also help the family financially. She attended a business course including typing and stenography and then sat and passed the civil service exam and was given a secretarial post with the Army Air Corps in Philadelphia. She remained there for three years at the end of which she was offered a secretarial position at  Swarthmore College, a private liberal arts college, but she rejected the offer deciding to spend the summer with her sister, Lilly, who lived in Pittsburgh.

Alice Neel aged 17 (1917)
Alice Neel aged 17 (1917)

Alice’s greatest love was her art and whilst working as a civil servant she attended evening classes at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia. This establishment, now a university, known as the University of the Arts (UArts) is one of the oldest schools of art or music in the United States.  In November 1921, after three years as a civil servant Alice had managed to save a little money and this was enough to cover the cost of enrolling at an art college and for the first year’s tuition.

Philadelphia had two main art establishments, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. She thought very carefully about which to choose but eventually decided to apply to the latter. She cited four main reasons for her choice. Firstly, she preferred to go to an all-women school so not to be pestered by amorous boys. Secondly the Pennsylvania Academy, being the alma mater of Mary Cassatt was a great believer of teaching art à la Impressionism and furthermore she was not a great admirer of Renoir-like art. Another reason was that she had heard the teaching at the Academy was very strict and deviating from their artistic teaching was anathema and one has to remember that she was already showing signs of being rebellious.  Finally the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (Now the Moore College of Art and Design) offered two courses, one in Fine Arts and the other in commercial design and it was this latter course she told her parents she was going to take. This allowed them to believe that their daughter had a plan for her future as a paid illustrator after completing the course, and that they were happy with. However after a short period she switched to the Fine Arts course, which was her great love, but didn’t tell her parents until later. Her savings paid for her first year’s education and because she proved such a talented student she received the Delaware County Scholarship, which enabled her to afford the second and third year fees.

Alice Neel xxThe Philadelphia School of Design for Women was founded in 1850 and it became the largest school for women. The long-time director of the school, between 1886 and 1920, was Elaine Sartain, the American painter and engraver, whose father, John Sartain, had served on the board as vice president for years. One thing Elaine Sartain will be remembered for was her decision to allow life-drawing classes at the School albeit using draped male and nude women models. However this introduction of life drawing classes was uncommon for women artists at the time.  The new Dean, Harriet Sartain, Elaine Sartain’s sister-in-law, had interviewed Alice for a place at the school.

Alice and her sister Lilly (1921)
Alice and her sister Lilly (1921)

Alice Neel studied landscape painting under Henry Snell, the London-born American Impressionist painter.   Snell was a member of the New Hope, Pennsylvania School of Landscape Painting. He taught at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women from 1899 to 1943, and often took his art class students abroad during the summer, sometimes visiting his native England, spending time at the art colony of St. Ives on the coast of Cornwall.   Alice also attended portraiture and life-drawing classes run by Rae Sloan Bredin, an American artist who was a member of the New Hope, Pennsylvania School of Impressionists.  One of her favourite tutors was the Leipzig-born American painter Paula Balano who taught drawing and anatomy. In Patricia Hills book Alice Neel the author quotes Alice with regards Balano:

“…There was one very good teacher, a woman Paula Balano, who used to design stained glass windows for a living. And she was great because she taught you to draw and she taught anatomy at the same time, so it wasn’t just the cold medical stuff of anatomy. She would teach you, for instance, that the bone ends here. The mouth has a circular thing like a rubber band, so when you get old it is pursed in. She was great. She once said to me, ‘The things that are hard for other people are easy for you, but the easy things, you can’t do…”


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 Alice attended the summer school at Chester Springs organised by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Here students were able to take part in portrait classes as well as landscape drawing classes. Whilst she attended the summer school, Alice met and became friends with a fellow artist, Carlos Enriquez Gomez.

This was a meeting which changed her life and not ultimately for the better

………………………….to be continued

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –  – – – – – – – – – – – –

The lack of Alice Neel’s paintings in this blog is for the reason that she really didn’t start painting seriously until the mid 1920’s and therefore in forthcoming blogs when I follow her life, I will introduce you to some of her wonderful paintings.

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)