Alice Neel. Part 3 – The men in her life – Kenneth Doolittle, John Rothschild and Joe Gould

Alice Neel
Alice Neel

Alice Neel was finally released from hospital in September 1931, almost thirteen months after her initial breakdown.  Once discharged from hospital she reacquainted herself with her friend Nadia Olyanova and her Norwegian Merchant Marine husband, Egil Hoye, who were now living in Stockton New Jersey.  It was during one of her visits to her friends that September, that she meets a friend of theirs, another Merchant Marine, Kenneth Doolittle. Doolittle had joined the merchant marines at the age of sixteen and it was during his first voyage that a fellow seaman introduced him to the world of communism.   Early the following year Alice and Doolittle moved in together and lived in an apartment on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village, which was looked upon, at the time,  as the centre of bohemian life, an area which was full of bohemian cafés and bars, a place where eccentricity was the norm.  Alice was aware of Doolittle’s character flaws, one of which was that he was a drug addict and also a very jealous man, especially with regards to her relationships with other men.  Cindy Nemser, an American art historian, writer, as well as being the founder and editor of the Feminist Art Journal.  She was an activist and prominent figure in the feminist art movement who was best known for her writings on the work of women artists.  She wrote an article in the magazine Art Talks regarding Alice Neel and Kenneth Doolittle in which she quotes Alice’s thoughts on her lover:

“…I lived with a sailor. A rather interesting chap who played the guitar and sang and was rather nice except that he liked dope.  He had a coffee can full of opium.  I didn’t dare smoke opium since I had just had this nervous breakdown, but they smoked opium at my apartment…”

In Patricia Hills 1983 book, Alice Neel, the author wrote that Alice’s mother was far from being impressed with Doolittle and wanted to separate the two lovebirds.  Alice’s mother was quoted as saying:

“…Why don’t you go stay with your sister in Teaneck, instead of out there with that dirty old sailor…”

However, the relationship continued despite the maternal warning.

Well Baby Clinic by Alice Neel (1928)
Well Baby Clinic by Alice Neel (1928)

In May 1932, Alice took part in the first Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit.  The Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit was, and still is, a biannual outdoor art festival which originated in 1931 by Jackson Pollock.  Pollock, who had fallen on hard times financially, would leave his Greenwich Village studio and set up his paintings on the sidewalk in hope that it may boost sales. Now these outdoor exhibits held by local artists help them sell their paintings and also help them gain recognition for their talents.  It was at this exhibition that Alice presented her 1928 work, Well Baby Clinic.  In the painting we see a nurse clothed in white and holding a baby. The pristine whiteness of her uniform contrasts with the dirty off-white colour of the nursery walls.  The nurse stands in the centre of the hospital ward and is surrounded by mothers feeding and cosseting their children whilst other babies can be seen lying unattended on white beds. In some ways this simplistic painting is quite disturbing, and probably offered the jaundiced view of childbirth held by the artist.  Alice Neel completed the work just a fortnight after the birth of her second child, Isabetta.

Degenerate Madonna, 1930, by Alice Neel
Degenerate Madonna, 1930, by Alice Neel

Neel also exhibited a very controversial painting at the exhibition entitled Degenerate Madonna but after many vociferous protestations from the Catholic Church she was asked to remove the work.  This was her take on the Madonna and Child genre

It was at this exhibition that she met a man who would be ever present throughout her life as her best friend and loyal supporter.  He was John Rothschild.  He had walked up to her during the exhibition and praised her work and later invited her and Doolittle to join him for drinks at his place.  John was a Harvard graduate who came from a wealthy background. His family owned the travel firm, Open Road.

Kenneth Doolittle watercolour by Alice Neel (1931)
Kenneth Doolittle watercolour by Alice Neel (1931)

Alice’s relationship with Doolittle had intensified, however, it all came to an abrupt end in December 1934, after Doolittle, in a fit of jealous rage, slashed or burnt a large number of her early works. He was thought to have been jealous of Neel’s relationship with another man but others believed that “the other man” was her art and the amount of time she dedicated to her painting.   Later Neel recalled the incident, as quoted in Wayne Kostenbaum 1997 book Alice Neel: Paintings from the Thirties:

“…Kenneth Doolittle cut up and burned about sixty paintings and two hundred drawings and watercolors in our apartment at 33 Cornelia Street. Also, he burned my clothing. He had no right to do that. I don’t think he would have done that if he hadn’t been a dope addict. He had a coffee can full of opium that looked like tar off the street. And it was a frightful act of male chauvinism: that he could control me completely. I had to run out of the apartment or I would have had my throat cut. That was a traumatic experience as he had destroyed a lot of my best work, things I had done before I ever knew he existed. It took me years to get over it….”

After the violent break up with Doolittle, Neel moved out of their apartment and being homeless went to stay with John Rothschild, and thanks to some financial help from his parents she had enough money to buy a small cottage in Spring Lake, New Jersey.  At the time, Rothschild was married with children but told Alice that he loved her and left his wife and became Neel’s lover but he wanted a more formalised relationship but Neel was happy with a less prescribed liaison, added to which she was often openly scathing about his prowess as a lover.  She was unconvinced regarding the future of their relationship and later that year left him and moved, to live alone, in a Manhattan apartment.

 That same year Alice depicted the two of them in the bathroom after a bout of lovemaking, in a painting entitled Bathroom Scene.

Untitled (Alice Neel and John Rothschild in the Bathroom) by Alice Neel (1935)
Untitled (Alice Neel and John Rothschild in the Bathroom) by Alice Neel (1935)

Alice Neel who was now in her mid-thirties, depicted herself in her 1935 painting entitled Alice and John in the Bathroom as a beautiful and curvy woman, with her long red hair. We see her seated on the toilet urinating while her lover, John Rothschild, stands at the sink, urinating with an erect penis in his hand. Stephanie Buhman in her 2009 article in on-line art magazine artcritical describes the painting:

“…Neel can be seen sitting on a toilet seat while urinating. John stands at the sink, urinating with an erect penis in his hand. Various shades of red accentuate details, such as Alice’s pubic hair, the toilet seat, John’s slippers and the head of his penis. Alice’s legs are turned outward, her arms crossed over her head, almost taking on the posture of an Indian deity. The scene could not be more humbling in its honesty and lack of glorification. Leaving the viewer in the role of a voyeur, Alice and John in the Bathroom is an ode to the pure sense of trust and privacy that two individuals, despite all imperfections, can experience when truly caring for each other…”

The work in no way beautifies the lovemaking which had just happened and I wonder what was in her mind when she painted this shockingly explicit work.

The first exhibition of the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit was so successful that a second one was held that November.  The second event was even bigger than the first with over three hundred artists participating.  Juliana Force, who was the Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and who had endorsed the exhibition, was so impressed with the works on show that she invited many of the exhibitors to meet her and talk about their work and their artistic struggle to survive financially

At the end of 1933, Alice Neel enrolled in the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), a government-funded program run under the auspices of the Whitney Museum of American Art and its director Juliana Force, aided by Vernon C. Porter.  In the 1977 book, New York City WPA Art: Then and  and Now, she recalled the time:

“…The first I heard of the W.P.A. was when in 1933 I received a letter from the Whitney Museum asking me to come and see them. I was interviewed by a young man who asked me ‘How would you like to paint for $30 a week?’ This was fabulous as most of the artists had nothing in those days and in fact there were free lunches for artists in the Village … All the artists were on the project. If there had been no such cultural projects there might

An interesting painting by Neel was completed in 1933 whilst she was part of the Works Progress Administration, which was a New Deal program to help the impoverished and unemployed.  In the work we see a scene which Neel could empathize with as she was then also struggling financially.   Before us we see a room at The Russell Sage Foundation, which had been established by Margaret Olivia Sage in 1907.  The aim of the foundation was to try and improve the social and living conditions in the United States.

Investigation of Poverty, Russell Sage Foundation by Alice Neel (1933)
Investigation of Poverty, Russell Sage Foundation by Alice Neel (1933)

In the painting, at the centre rear, we see an elderly grey-haired lady facing side on to us.  She is dressed all in black and we notice that she has her head buried in her hands. Her black clothing probably signifies that she is a widow. We see her seated in front of a small table around which are her interrogators. They look directly at her and one of them seems to be talking to her.  From looking at her, caste your eyes on her inquisitors.  How would you describe their expressions –reflective and yet detached?   It is an unusual grouping.  The men are all wearing suits and ties and the women all wear hats.  In the left foreground, with his back to the viewer, a man sits leaning forward, apparently one of the questioners.  The painting is all about the despair of the central character even though we cannot see her face. Despite the fact that the people investigating her status seem to be well-meaning, the woman is clearly bewildered by the situation that has necessitated her being at this meeting, a prerequisite if she wants financial assistance.  Alice Neel, through this painting, captures the essence of what life was like for the poor during the Depression.  What could be more demeaning than an old lady having to suffer the questions posed by the “suits” in order to gain financial help?.  In the right foreground we see two men, side on to us, who are next in line to be questioned.  One of them has a white moustache and is well dressed in suit and tie.  By the look of his expression he too seems overwhelmed by the ordeal

Joe Gould by Alice Neel (1933)
Joe Gould by Alice Neel (1933)

That year Alice Neel completed a somewhat controversial painting of Joe Gould.  For over three decades Gould, who was a homeless Harvard graduate, and a Greenwich Village eccentric who went from bar to bar telling those who would listen to him about the book he was writing.  It was not just any book, he said it was to be the longest book ever written, entitled An Oral History of Our Time.  There must have been something appealing about him as he was well supported by the Greenwich Village artists, poets and writers of the time.

Joe Gould
Joe Gould

The stories of his large tome spread and a journalist, Joseph Mitchell, on the New Yorker wrote a couple of pieces about Gould and his famous book.  Sadly for Mitchell the book was just a figment of Gould’s imagination !   However, Gould became a local legend thanks to all the publicity and it went to his head as he truly believed that his fame was well deserved and that now he was a great attraction especially for the women.  It was probably because of his belief that he was such a lady’s man and a great lover, again, like the book, probably a figment of his imagination, resulted in the way Alice Neel depicted him in her 1933 controversial painting, Joe Gould, which an art critic described as “a symphony of cocks”

In 1934 Alice receives a letter from her estranged husband Joe Enriquez, who on on the news of his mother’s death, had left Europe and returned to his home in Cuba.   In the letter he asked Alice to consider a reconciliation but by now she had other men in her life, her lover Kenneth Doolittle and her ardent admirer John Rothschild and so she declined the “invitation” and she and her husband were never to meet again.

In the early thirties Neel completed a number of nude paintings.  There was nothing erotic or genteel about them, on the contrary these paintings and sketches were down to earth “warts and all” honest depictions of nude men and women.

Alienation by Alice Neel (1935)
Alienation by Alice Neel (1935)

In her 1935 watercolour on paper work entitled Alienation she depicted herself lying voluptuously in bed while her friend and lover John Rothschild stands over her.  It is interesting to note that at this time the painting of nudity was not considered appropriate for a female artist to pursue.

Nadya and Nona by Alice Neel (1933)
Nadya and Nona by Alice Neel (1933)

Another early example is Nadya and Nona which she completed in 1933.  It is a challenging and provocative painting of two nude women lying in bed which scrutinised the subject of sexuality but at the same time avoided any erotic or seductive nuances.

It is around this time that another man comes into her life.  He is a married nightclub singer Jose Santiago Negron………………….

…………………to be continued.

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

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)

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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