It is almost five weeks since I published Alice Neel. Part 4 and the reason for the delay was not my lost interest in the subject but having to suffer the trauma of house moving!
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The year was 1940 and another man entered Alice Neel’s life. He was the photographer and film critic Sam Brody. Brody was born in London on New Year’s Day 1907. His parents were Abraham and Sophie Brodetsky (later shortened to Brody). He was raised by Russian Jewish parents who had immigrated to America in 1920, via Paris and London when Sam was thirteen years old. His father was a journeyman tailor who eked out a living in various sweatshops and he and his family struggled financially and maybe because of this lifestyle Brody’s father was a great believer of Marxism, a philosophy he would pass on to his son who would cling to those beliefs for the rest of his life.
Sam Brody was a founding member of the Workers Film and Photo League (WFPL) which was an organization of filmmakers, photographers and writers which began in 1931 dedicated to using film and photography for social change and presenting, in a documentary-format, the Great Depression from a Marxist perspective. These documentaries focused on the burning issues of the time such as the U.S. Labour Movement, the National Hunger marches of 1931 and 1932 and the Bonus March 1932. Much of the output was not for general release was shown more at Communist Party and trade union events. There was also a philanthropic aspect to the work of the WFPL organisation as they joined up with Workers International Relief group to show their films at fund raising events.
It was in January 1940 that Alice Neel met Sam Brody at a Works Progress Administration (WPA) meeting. Alice was introduced to him by her friend, the sculptor, Blanche Angel, who told her that Brody was an excellent photographer and would be an ideal choice to take some photos of her new son, Richard. This was just two months after her lover and father of her new-born child, José Negron had walked out the family home. According to Alice Neel, there was an immediate magnetism between her and Brody (not corroborated by Brody!) and she was very forthright in her 1959 interview with the photographer, Jonathan Brand about him and how she had attracted him:
“…He was such a show off, such and intellectual. He came home with me that night. And of course he fell in love with me immediately. He was very gallant when he fell in love. He brought me flowers, and he came every day. He told me he had divorced his wife because she had an affair with a travelling salesman…”
Sadly for Alice, the last fact was not true. However, a few weeks after their initial meeting Brody moved into Alice and her son’s East 107th Street New York apartment. Although José, the father of Alice’s son had moved out he kept returning for visits in order to give Alice some money and during his visits, as Brody would angrily term it, he would “serenade” her with his guitar. Brody’s anger with José relationship with Alice may seem reasonable to many but for the fact that he had lied to Alice with regards his marital status. Brody had married a Russian woman Claire Gebiner in 1927 and the couple had two children, a son Julian and a daughter Mady. Even when Brody moved in with Alice he would visit Claire and his family every afternoon. For a long time neither Alice nor Claire knew of each other’s existence!
Alice was drawn to Sam Brody as she considered him to be an intellectual and believed in his fight for worker’s rights and his support for the downtrodden. On the other hand, she soon realised that Brody had a fiery temperament and the two would have many fierce and passionate arguments which turned into unbridled screaming matches. Ironically, despite Brody “two-timing” Alice and Claire, he was jealous of Alice’s previous relationships with the likes of John Rothschild and her previous lover and father of her child, José Negron and it was said that Brody and Rothschild had come to blows. What is more sinister about Brody’s relationship with Alice was that he took out his jealousy on Alice’s son Richard whom he derived a violent dislike. In the documentary Alice Neel, Richard Neel recalled this violence:
“…He used to kick me under the table all the time. He kicked me under the table and one time I screwed up enough courage to say ‘Stop kicking me under the table’. Well she [Alice] had to go out that evening and he beat me up. He really did………. It was intermittent but it was physical violence and it was directed at Alice and it was certainly directed at me…”
Neel who was painfully aware of the treatment of her son by Brody painted a very moving picture of the two entitled Sam and Richard in 1940. In the work we see a venomous looking Sam tightly grasping the terrified Richard. Richard almost became blind due to dietary deficiencies when he was one-year old and this must have added to his pain.
In January 1941 Alice became pregnant with Sam Brody’s child and on September 3rd a son, Hartley Stockton Neel was born. The joy of this birth was tempered by the fact that soon after the event Brody’s wife Claire caught sight of her husband wheeling the pram and lovingly lifting Hartley out of the carriage. Claire, as one can imagine, was devastated. Not only was her husband two-timing her but he had a child with another woman.
Phillip Bonosky, the writer and friend of Alice, wrote about Sam Brody in his journal and described him and his behaviour towards Alice’s children:
“…A Jew…. who is obviously a pathological case of some sort. I met both the boys [Richard and Hartley]. The eldest one [Richard] is almost totally blind as a result of a dietary deficiency when he was just one year or so old. The youngest boy’s father [Brody] who seems to flit about the country pounces down on them from time to time and while he is there, he tortures and abuses the eldest child and showers psychopathic affection on the younger one, his own. Alice herself is torn by her feelings for and against him and doesn’t know what to do…”
Hartley featured in a number of his mother’s paintings. In a 1943 painting Hartley on the Rocking Horse we see her younger son on a rocking horse. Look at his facial expression. Is it one of joy to be astride the horse? I rather think his wide-eyed facial expression is not one of delight but more one of fear that he may fall off and he may have had to be coaxed to stay on the “beast”. If you look carefully at the mirror in the background you will see that the artist has added a mirror-reflection of herself.
Two years later in 1945 Neel painted a portrait of her five-year old son, Richard entitled Richard Age Five. His troubled upbringing can be seen in the demeanour of the youngster. Look carefully at the depiction. See how he clings to the back of the chair. Look at his wide-eyed expression. There is a vulnerability about the child and knowing the background of his upbringing and his bad relationship with his mother’s lover, Brody, we can sympathise with what he had to endure.
Twenty-five-year-old Hartley appeared in another work painted by his mother in 1967 entitled Hartley with a Cat.
Alice gave birth to four children. Her first-born child Santillana died of diphtheria just days before her first birthday and never featured in any of Alice’s paintings although there is a 1927 photographs of her and her mother.
Her second born child Isabetta, who was born in 1928, featured in just one painting by Neel and this 1934 work is a controversial depiction of the six-year old. For those of you who have not read the early blogs on Alice Neel, Alice and her Cuban husband Carlos Enriquez had Isabetta in November 1928 but soon after Carlos took his daughter to live with his family in Cuba and Alice, who had a major mental breakdown and was hospitalised never regained custody of her daughter. Neel was rarely given access to her daughter except on one occasion in 1934 when mother and daughter were together long enough to paint the most extraordinary and, some would say, scandalous portrait. The little girl stands naked with her hands planted firmly on her hips in what looks like a rebellious pose, one that makes it clear that despite what is offered to her to stand still, she is having none of it. Isabetta defiantly focuses her fierce blue gaze fixes on her mother almost as if she is questioning why should she stand before her naked. Look out the artist has depicted her child’s hands. The fingers are claw-like giving the child a more sinister air. What was going through Alice Neel’s mind when she painted this portrait? I struggle to understand why a mother would depict her daughter in such a fashion. Only she knows.
It is obvious to all mothers the trauma the loss of her child affected Alice but we should not discount the trauma the child suffered with the loss of her mother. Did she feel abandoned? Isabetta and her mother met once more when she was ten years old. It was not a good visit maybe because Alice was heavily pregnant with Richard and Alice and Isabetta never bonded. There were to be many traumatic times in Isabetta’s life including, when she was eighteen years old, her proposed nuptials were called off by her fiancé’s parents, two weeks before the wedding. Maybe the separation from her mother and other setbacks she had to endure stayed with her all her life as in 1982, aged 54, she committed suicide. Her mother, Alice, was to die two years later.
Whilst living in the Spanish Harlem district of New York Alice painted many studies of the inhabitants such as her 1941 double portrait of two young girls, Carmen and Hilda entitled Two Girls in Spanish Harlem (Carmen and Hilda) which was a beautiful example of her artistic ability.
I particularly like her 1943 painting entitled Spanish Family which depicts a mother and her three children. Look how Neel has portrayed the facial expressions of the four characters. Words are not needed to express how they all feel. None are smiling. The mother looks despondent and we get a feel of what life must have been like for her during those hard times.
A 1948 painting by Neel, entitled Fire Escape, deviated from her normal figurative work and shows a tenement building close to where she lived.
On May 3rd 1946 Alice Neel’s father, George, died, aged eighty-two and the day following the funeral in Colwyn Alice painted his portrait, Dead Father. In Patricia Hills book Alice Neel, she quotes Alice talking about the painting:
“…He was a good and kind man and his head still looked noble. I didn’t set out to memorize him, because I was too affected. But the image printed itself…”
That same year Alice completed a painting of her newly-widowed mother.
Six years later, in 1952, she completed another depiction of her mother, Alice snr.
In the title of this blog I added “he said, she said”. The reason for this is that most of the information I got for these blogs about Alice Neel came from the book Alice Neel. The Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban and during my delving into the many internet sites about the artist I came across one by David Brody who was the son of Sam Brody and Sondra Herrera whom he married after his liaison with Alice Neel ended in 1958. He was unhappy with what Phoebe Hoban had written about his father and for the sake of being even-handed I thought you should have a look at what he wrote:
In my next blog I will take a final look at the paintings and life of this great American figurative artist.