John William Godward. Part 2 – Life’s decisions and independence

John William Godward
Is this the artist ?

………………The year is 1887 and John William Godward had to make a decision about his life.  For twenty-six years he had lived with his parents and siblings and had to abide by his mother and father’s authoritarian rules.  They had mapped out his future which they expected him to follow.  The question was whether he had the nerve and the will to break the parental shackles and become an independent person.  Godward needed a push to set the ball of freedom rolling.  The initial push came with the Royal Academy’s acceptance of his painting for that year’s Summer Exhibition, and buoyed by that success in late 1887, he decided to get himself a small atelier in the Bolton Studios in Gilston Road, Kensington.  The studio space was tiny but often, rather than return home, he would sleep on the floor, occasionally returning to his parent’s Wimbledon home only to get a fresh set of clothing or an occasional meal, but this studio afforded him his own space, a place to think, a place to plan, a place to take back the control of his life.

There were about twenty separate ateliers in the Bolton Studios complex when Godward moved into his space.  Artists mainly occupied them, both male and female, most of whom were older than Godward. Such artist as Théodore Roussel, George Morton, Henry Ryland, Charles Irvine Bacon, Thomas B. Kennington, St. George Hare, George Lawrence Bulleid, Ernest W. Appleby and John Cooke all had their own space in the Bolton Studios.  It was an ideal meeting place for the artists and gave them an opportunity to exchange ideas and discuss techniques and it is probable that young Godward was in awe of his fellow painters.

Ianthe by John William Godward (1889)

It was in the late 1880’s that Godward’s art turned towards neo-classicism and an example of this is his 1889 oil painting entitled Ianthe.     Ianthe was a Cretan girl who is mentioned in Ovid’s narrative poem, Metamorphoses.  The garland of violet flowers upon her head probably relate to the fact that the name Ianthe is of Greek origin, and means “violet flower”.  One of the hallmarks of Godward’s classical depictions is the way he captures the veins and stains on blocks of marble.  It is thought that he perfected this when he worked for the architect and designer, William Hoff Wontner.

Violets, Sweet Violets by John William Godward (1906)

Violets were also the subject of another painting by Godward.  The 1906 tondo, or circular work, was entitled Violets, Sweet Violets and is viewed as one of Godward’s finest works. Violet flowers symbolize delicate love, affection, modesty, faithfulness, nobility, intuition, and dignity and are often depicted in Victorian Valentine cards.   The violet flower has a special place in Roman mythology.  The Romans placed emphasis on the plant and for them it represented the arrival of spring during which time they would scatter petals from the flower in their banquet halls and by drinking Violetum, a sweet wine formulated by Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet and lover of refined luxury.  The ancient Greeks, who attributed the violet as the symbol of love and fertility, used them in love potions. The violet was considered the flower of Zeus.

It is a beautiful emotive depiction, awash with compassion and made up of the most charming and enthralling colours.  It is a painting which portrays beauty.  The beauty of the variegated marble backdrop, the beautiful tunic and sash the lady wears, the beauty of the woman herself and of course not forgetting the subject of the painting, the beauty of the violets she daintily holds in her hand.  Her head is bowed down and she seems lost in sad contemplation.

Exhibiting one’s work at the Royal Academy was a high point in an artist’s life and the inclusion of Godward’s painting brought his work to the attention of not just the public but also to art dealers and it was after seeing Godward’s work that he was contacted by Arthur Tooth a leading London art dealer and gallery owner.

The Engagement Ring by John William Godward (1891)

One of the first paintings by Godward that Arthur Tooth took was his 1888 work entitled The Engagement Ring.  This work, with its mosaic floor leading to a marble balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, was a composition similar to that used in the art work of Lawrence Tadema-Alma, who had a great influence on the young painter.

Expectation by John William Godward (1900)

Around the turn of the century we see more and more of Godward’s neo-classical works, an artistic style which would always be synonymous with him.  In 1900, he completed a work entitled Expectation which had a classical balcony setting. A young woman lies stretched out on a marble balcony seat, and faces towards the left of the picture. She lies on her front, on a tiger skin rug, and she supports her head with her right arm, whilst her left arm dangles downwards.  Her left-hand clutches the elaborate handle of a black feather fan which has an intricate and ornamental handle.  She is draped in a loose-fitting salmon pink dress with yellow patterned sash.   Her dark, voluminous silky hair is pinned at the back of her head. The ends of the balcony walls are strangely decorated with orange-coloured stone heads of gods. To the extreme left of the painting we see a single mature tree and in the right background, above the wall, we see the tops of more trees. The sea is visible in the background, with the coastline in the distance, below a bright blue sky.

After a short spell of working with the art dealer Arthur Tooth, Godward decided to switch his allegiance to another London fine art dealer and print seller, Thomas Miller McLean who had his premises next to the Haymarket Theatre.  McLean handled the majority of works by Godward and managed to sell a large number.  In late 1889 Godward finally broke the parental shackles and rented a room, for twenty-four pounds per annum, in a house in St Leonard’s Terrace, Chelsea, close to his St Leonard studio.  Chelsea, at the end of the nineteenth century, was considered to be the centre of the London art scene.

Summer by William Renolds-Stephens(1888-1890)

His next-door neighbour at St Leonard’s Terrace was the American- born British artist and sculptor, William Reynolds-Stephens, who unlike Godward had received artistic training at the Blackheath School of Art and the Royal Academy School where he won the Landseer Scholarship and also a prize for painting. His most famous work was his large classical canvas, Summer which he began in 1888 and completed in 1890.  Godward was truly inspired by the painting.

Godward was a year older than Reynolds-Stephens but it is clear by the similarity in some of their artwork, such as the marble exedras and colonnades as well as all the Greek and Roman artefacts which formed part of their paintings.  Undoubtedly, the two artists must have fed off each other’s ideas and of course Reynolds-Stephens also had dealings with Lawrence Tadema-Alma.

Waiting for an Answer by John William Godward (1889)

Godward’s artistic output in 1889 was remarkable.  He completed twenty-five oil paintings, many of which went to McLean his favoured art dealer.  One painting completed in that year was entitled Waiting for an Answer.  The strange story behind this work which features a man and a woman is that many believe that the man is a self-portrait by Godward based on the belief that the male figure looks very much like photographs of Godward’s brothers.  You may wonder why the likeness of the man in the painting could not be compared with a photograph of Godward himself but the sad fact is that no photograph of John William Godward exists and the reason for this will be explained in the next blog.  Another interesting aspect to this depiction is the belief that the man waiting for an answer from the woman is based on Godward’s own relationship with one of his models and his unrequited love of the lady.

Godward’s problem with his overbearing parents was not just affecting him but also his twenty-three-year-old sister Mary Frederica (Nin) who also suffered a similar downtrodden life at the hands of her mother and father.  In 1889, it is believed that they cobbled together an arranged marriage for her with a man fourteen years her senior and so, in order to escape the parental home, she accepted the arrangement.  It was a disastrous decision and despite giving birth to two children, the marriage ended in divorce and the social improprieties this caused resulted in her estrangement from her father and being shunned by her brothers Edmund and Alfred.

A Priestess of Bacchus by John William Godward (1890)

In 1890, one of the many paintings Godward completed was one entitled A Priestess of Bacchus.  In the painting we see a Bacchante, a priestess or female follower of Bacchus, resting on a marble exedra seat, situated on a balcony, high up overlooking the blue Mediterranean Sea.  Her head lolls onto her right shoulder as she looks out at us.  In her left hand, she holds up a thyrsus, which is a staff or spear tipped with an ornament like a pine cone, which is carried by Bacchus and his followers.  It is a symbol of prosperity, fertility, hedonism, and pleasure/enjoyment in general.

The Sweet Siesta of a Summer’s Day by John William Godward (1891)

In 1891, he had his painting The Sweet Siesta of a Summer Day accepted into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

Innocent Amusements by John William Godward (1891)

Another work completed that year was Innocent Amusements with its depiction of an ancient Roman atrium with fountain and marble statue. We observe a lady who has broken off from her sewing to amuse herself by trying to balance a peacock plume on her finger.  Two younger girls watch her.  Through the doorway we see two men talking.

Playtime by John William Godward (1891)

Godward’s output of work in 1891 was reduced and this has been put down to various possible reasons.  He could have been unwell.  He could have spent time travelling and a factor may have been that whereas many of his earlier paintings featured a single figure he was more inclined to paint scenes featuring multiple figures which would have taken longer to complete.  An example of this is Godward’s 1891 painting entitled Playtime in which we see three figures on a balcony. Once again, historians believe there is a great resemblance between the man in the painting and an existing photograph of Godward’s brother and so surmise, rightly or wrongly, that it could be a self-portrait of the artist

The Betrothed by John William Godward (1892)

In 1892 Godward completed a work entitled The Betrothed and for the first time we are introduced to his polka-dot sash which would appear in many of his later works.  This painting by Godward was also the oil by the artist to be placed in the permanent collection of a major art museum when it was given to the Guildhall Art Gallery in London where it is still on show.

The Playground by John William Godward (1892)

One of his most complex and impressive multi-figure painting was completed in 1892, entitled The Playground.  The setting is a marble terrace which overlooks the Mediterranean.  In the painting, we see seven classically adorned maidens relaxing.  Three are sitting on the floor chatting and playing the ancient game of knucklebones whilst to the right we see two older ladies holding a skipping rope for a young child.  On the far left we see another lady lying on the marble exedra playing a musical instrument.

Endmyion by John William Godward (1893)

The year 1893 has been described as Godward’s “break-through” year, a year when he completed his most remarkable and inspiring works of art.  Endymion has been judged as one of his most impressive and is based on Keats’ poem.

“…A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing.

Yes or No? by John Wiliam Godward (1893)

And the other, Yes or No? in which the male figure again is believed to be a self-portrait.  Once more, the theme of the work is thought to be Godward’s relationship with one of his models.  His love for the woman was not reciprocated but he continued to pursue her love and whether she would return it was the basis of the painting’s title.

In my final blog I will look at Godward’s time in Italy and his sad and lonely demise.

Most of the information for this and my final blog about John William Godward came from a 1998 book by Vern Grosvenor Swanson entitled J.W.Godward: the Eclipse of Classicism.

Alice Neel. Part 6. The latter years

 Alice Neel (1900-1984)
Alice Neel

Alice Neel had been receiving money for her involvement with the Works Project Administration (WPA).  The WPA was the largest and most ambitious American New Deal agency, employing millions of unemployed people, mostly unskilled men, to carry out public works projects.  The WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects.  At its height in 1936, this federal project, the Federal Art Project employed over 5,300 artists. The Arts Service Division created illustrations and posters for the WPA writers, musicians, and theatres. However, with the onset of World War II, mass unemployment ended as millions of men joined the services and so President Roosevelt decided that there was no longer a need for such a national relief programme and the WPA was closed down at the end of 1942.  Alice was out of work and had then to turn to the state for public assistance which she kept drawing on for the next decade.

Photograph of Alice Neel sitting before her paintings which was used in the inviation to the exhibition
Photograph of Alice Neel sitting before her paintings which was used in the inviation to the exhibition

In March 1944 Alice held a solo exhibition at the New York Pinacotheca Gallery run by Rose Fried.  This was her first solo exhibition since 1938.  There were twenty-four of her works on display. The exhibition received mixed reviews.  An article in the prestigious art magazine, ArtNews, described her work:

“…Neel’s paintings at Pinacotheca have a kind of deliberate hideousness which make them hard to take even for persons who admire her creative independence … Nor does the intentional gaucherie of her figures lend them added expression. However, this is plainly serious, thoughtful work and in the one instance of The Walk, it comes off extremely well…”

As Bob Dylan once said The Times They are a-changin and this was the point in time that Alice Neel found herself.  After the 1944 Alice Neel’s retrospective exhibition at the Pinacotheca, gallery director Rose Fried never showed anything with a figure in it.  According to Neel, Rose had become a pure abstractionist and the works that Alice produced were no longer wanted.  The art world was changing; it had almost completely turned its back on Social Realism which had been the art form that had made Neel’s work so popular in the 1930’s.  So, Alice had to change but as another famous lady politician once said, “this lady is not for turning” and Alice likewise would not change her artistic style to suit others. In an interview with Eleanor Munro for her 1979 book Originals, American Women Artists, Neel is quoted as saying:

“…I never followed any school.  I never imitated any artist.  I never did any of that…”

Sam and Hartley By Alice Neel
Sam and Hartley By Alice Neel

For Alice Neel, she knew what she wanted to paint and nobody or nothing was going to alter her artistic desires even though New York was now awash with European émigré artists who were leaders in the world of Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism such as Max Ernst, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali, all of who had fled across the Atlantic to avoid the rise of Nazism.  Alfred Barr had founded the MOMA and in October 1942, millionaire, Peggy Guggenheim, who was married to Max Ernst, had arrived in New York from war-torn Europe had opened a new gallery/museum.   It was called The Art of This Century Gallery.  The Art of This Century Gallery was situated at 30 West 57th Street in Manhattan and occupied two commercial spaces on the seventh floor of a building that was part of the midtown arts district which included the Museum of Modern Art, and three of the four galleries were dedicated to Cubist and Abstract art, Surrealism and Kinetic art, with only the fourth, the front room, being a commercial gallery.

During the 1950’s Alice Neel was kept under surveillance by the FBI.  In a memo from their Miami office based on a 1954 letter sent to them by an informant they concluded that Alice Neel was:

“…a muddled romantic, Bohemian type Communist idealist who will carry out loyally the Communist sympathiser type of assignment, including illegal work if ordered to do so…”

Their file on her and her activities remained open until the early 1960’s.

My Mother by Alice Neel (1952)
My Mother by Alice Neel (1952)

In March 1953, Alice’s mother comes to live with her in her Spanish Harlem apartment.  Sadly a year later Alice snr. aged 86, died from complications brought on by a broken hip.  For Alice, this was yet another traumatic moment in her life  She had always had to battle with depression and the death of her mother triggered the onset of the debilitating malaise for the next few years.  Physically she put on weight and sought the comfort of alcohol.

Alice often complained that she could not get any gallery space for her works of art.  She painted prolifically but still wanted to exhibit them.  The problem was that her genre of art had lost its appeal with the public.  She was going through a difficult period with mental health issues and was attending therapy sessions with a psychologist, Dr Anthony Sterrett.  He spent time with her trying to make her become more self-confident and self-assertive and it was he who persuaded Alice to contact Frank O’Hara to see if he would sit for her.  O’Hara was an American writer poet and art critic who was working as a reviewer for the prestigious art magazine, Artnews, and who, in 1960 was Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art.  This position at the MOMA made him a prominent figure in New York City’s art world. He was looked upon as a leading figure in the New York School, which was an informal group of artists, writers and musicians who drew inspiration from jazz, surrealism, abstract expressionism, action painting and contemporary avant-garde art movements.

Frank O'Hara by Alice Neel (1960)
Frank O’Hara by Alice Neel (1960)

Alice completed two portraits of O’Hara in 1960 and they were looked upon as her breakthrough works.  In the painting, Frank O’Hara, Alice has beautifully and faithfully captured his distinguishing and unique profile.  The side view is hawk-like which is softened slightly by the bunch of lilac behind his head.

Frank O'Hara No.2 by Alice Neel (1960)
Frank O’Hara No.2 by Alice Neel (1960)

In stark contrast, the second portrait, Frank O’Hara No.2 is a more shocking depiction of the man.  Our eyes are immediately drawn to his bad teeth, which looked like tombstones, his sharp nose and somewhat wild eyes.  To be brutally honest, at first, he comes over as being ugly, even, dare I say, repulsive, but there is a vulnerability about Neel’s depiction of him.

Six years later, in the early morning hours of July 24, 1966, O’Hara was struck by a jeep on the Fire Island beach, after the beach taxi in which he had been riding with a group of friends broke down in the dark.  He died the following day.

Kate Millett by Alice Neel (1970)
Kate Millett by Alice Neel (1970)

In America, the 60’s was dominated by the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War with its protests which swept the country.  It was also a time when the second wave of the modern feminist movement emerged.  It was a time when there was the growing cry for equal opportunity for women and it soon became one which could not be ignored.   Enter Katherine Murray “Kate” Millett, best known as Kate Millett.  She was an American feminist writer, educator, artist, and activist. She attended Oxford University and was the first American woman to be awarded a postgraduate degree with first-class honours by St. Hilda’s.  She is probably best known for her ground-breaking 1970 book Sexual Politics, which was her doctoral dissertation at Columbia University.

Time magazine cover
Time magazine cover

This book became a bible for feminism and feminist protest was such a hot topic that in August 1970, Time magazine decided that Kate would be the face of the feminist movement and therefore should appear on the cover of their magazine.  Millet was unimpressed by the way she was heralded as the embodiment of the movement and refused to pose for a painting by Alice Neel which would be used for the cover.  She believed that no one person could presume to represent the objectives of the feminist movement.  Time magazine was not to be put off by her refusal and instead asked Neel to complete the portrait, using a photograph.  After the publication of the magazine Alice Neel and her art was always linked with the feminist movement but as Alice once quipped, she had been a feminist before there was feminism!

Andy Warhol by Alice Neel (1970)
Andy Warhol by Alice Neel (1970)

The year 1970 was also the year that Alice Neel painted one of her most famous works, a depiction of Andy Warhol.  The painting can be found at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and rather than me trying to describe the painting I have reproduced the words of the museum’s audio-guide which was put together by Trevor Fairbrother, an independent curator and writer:

“…It’s an interesting year for both of these artists. Alice Neel was seventy years old when she painted it, and in a sense, was just hitting her stride as an important American realist. She’d had an incredible career since the thirties, but she hadn’t really had much recognition until the wave of feminist interest in the arts in the sixties. And suddenly she was a forebear for a whole new generation of feminist artists and writers.  The late sixties were much harder on Warhol. He’d been shot two years before Neel painted this portrait—an attempted assassination by a member of his artistic circle. In posing shirtless for Neel, he exposes the corset that he was required to wear for the rest of his life. He also bares his aging body, his chest sagging so that he almost appears to have breasts.  She shows him—I think it’s this kind of essence of loneliness and vulnerability, but at the same time I think she knows that he knows that everybody is looking at him. He was very much invested in famous artists. He wanted to be a kind of brand-name Pop artist, and he certainly is that now, long after his death. He, Warhol, in a sense is rising to her challenge to sit for her, to be painted and to take his clothes off. And so, in a sense, he’s doing a brave thing, but he’s also―he’s getting through it by shutting his eyes and being very focused internally.  I think part of the soulfulness of this picture is the fact that it might seem unfinished. I wouldn’t say it’s unfinished. I think she decided she had what she needed, and she stopped where she was ready to stop. The picture doesn’t need more…” 

Fame came to Alice Neel late in life and she believed she had the right to bask in the glory.  Her son Hartley recounted his mother’s feelings about this sudden fame:

“…She felt it was something she deserved.  She basked in it.  She really enjoyed it.  When we were young, she struggled, waiting around for some critic to review her work, up or down.  All of the sudden they were saying good things about her.  Her paintings were on the walls, and people were buying her work.  It was all different.  She wasn’t bitter.  She had a very upbeat attitude toward the whole thing…”

Self-portrait by Alice Neel (1980)
Self-portrait by Alice Neel (1980)

On October 14th 1980 at the Harald Reed Gallery on East 78th Street in New York a benefit dinner for the Third Street Music School Settlement was being held at which was the debut of an art exhibition entitled Selected 20th Century American Self Portraits, one of which was Alice Neel’s nude self-portrait which she had begun five years earlier.

She looks out at us completely oblivious or unconcerned about what we are thinking about why an eighty-year-old woman would want to depict herself naked.  Does she feel vulnerable?  There is no sign of that in her facial expression, in fact Neel’s steely gaze rivets us.  She exudes an air of self-confidence, despite her less than picture-perfect body.  We see her sitting regally in an upholstered chair with its hard vertical-striped arms which tend to accentuate her yielding and bounteous rolls of flesh.   It is a “warts and all” portrait.   She does not hide the visible signs of aging.  Instead she has decided to reveal herself with characteristic truthfulness and somewhat defencelessness. Yet there is also a sense of pride in this depiction.  In her right hand she holds a paintbrush whilst her left hand grasps a rag and, as we see no easel or canvas in the depiction, the two serve as artistic elements. The only personal accessory depicted is the presence of her eyeglasses which may have been added by her to remind us of her frailty and that she has passed her prime.

The painting was of course controversial and caused a stir but it also was testament that it was an audacious work by an artist who at the time was at the top of her form.  The other unusual aspect of this work was that beside a few pencil-sketched self-portraits, it was her first self-portrait painting.  The painting now resides at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington.

Loneliness by Alice Neel (1970)
Loneliness by Alice Neel (1970)

In 1970 Alice completed a work entitled Loneliness, which she ironically referred to as a “self-portrait”.  It was about this time that her younger son Hartley had married Ginny and moved to Massachusetts.

Ginny in a Striped Shirt by Alice Neel (1969)
Ginny in a Striped Shirt by Alice Neel (1969)

Throughout her life Alice continued with her portraits of her family.  Her future daughter-in-law, Hartley’s wife, Ginny featured in her 1969 work, Ginny in a Striped Shirt.  Ginny was a feminist who looked upon Alice as a role model and they became good friends even before she became involved with Hartley.

Pregnant Woman by Alice Neel (1971)
Pregnant Woman by Alice Neel (1971)

Her other daughter-in-law, Nancy, Richard’s wife and Alice’s assistant during the last two decades of her life, was depicted in Alice’s 1971 painting, Pregnant Woman.  In the work, we see an image of her husband looming in the background.

In 1980 Alice Neel’s physical health takes a turn for the worse and after a series of tests it is decided that she had to be fitted with a pacemaker to regulate her heart rate. Four years later in 1984, during a routine visit to the Massachusetts General Hospital to have her pacemaker checked, X-rays indicate that she has advanced colon cancer which has already spread to her liver. She immediately undergoes surgery and afterwards returns to Vermont to stay with Hartley, Ginny and their children while she recuperates.

From the Spring to the Summer of 1984 she returns to New York and Spring Lake. With the help of her son and his wife, Richard and Nancy, and despite her rapidly deteriorating health, she continues with her busy schedule including an appearance on the Johnny Carson Show

Among her many commitments, interviews for the ArtNews article continue, and, on June 19th, she makes a second appearance on ‘The Tonight Show’ during which she insists that Johnny Carson visit her in New York to sit for a portrait. In July, she had to receive chemotherapy which further weakened her.  Despite her weakened condition, she continues to paint.

Alice Neel died in her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment on October 13th 1984 surrounded by her family and was buried in a private burial ceremony at a cemetery near her studio in Vermont.  On February 7th 1985, a memorial service for her is held at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

My look at the life and works of Alice Neel has been a long journey stretching over six blogs and yet I know I have missed so much out about her life and because she was a prolific artist I know I have only scratched at the surface with regards her works of art.  I have been careful not to be judgemental with regards her lifestyle which probably added to her problems but she had a difficult and often sad life which often was beyond her endurance.  She however always wanted to do her own thing and I leave you with one of her quotes:

“…”I had a very hard life, and I paid the price for it, but I did as I wanted,” Miss Neel said then. ”I’m a high-powered person…”  

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

I have used numerous internet sources to put together this and the other 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 at several exhibitions in America but there are also a series of exhibitions of her work travelling around Europe at the current time including one I am due to visit next month:

Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag, Holland

(November 5th, 2016 – February 12th 2017)

Alice Neel. Part 4 – José Santiago Negrón

Alice Neel (1900–1984) was one of the most significant American painters of the 20th century. Her psychologically charged portraits tell intimate and unconventional stories, as much about people living on the margins of society and in subcultures as about the New York cultural elite and her own family. Alice Neel led an exceptionally interesting life as a single parent and a feminist in a time when the world of art was largely male-dominated.

Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

Alice Neel Exhibition 10.6.2016 – 2.10.2016


Fishing Pier, Spring Lake by Alice Neel (1938)
Fishing Pier, Spring Lake by Alice Neel (1938)

Alice spent the summer of 1934 with her mother and father in a cottage at Spring Lake, New Jersey, a short distance from the beach.  She was still with John Rothschild, who had help fund the buying of the single storey, red-shingle cottage in 1935 and he, besotted with Alice, had left his second wife in the summer of that year. Sadly for John, it was a one-way relationship as she was often very rude to him and would often refer to him as the “money man” but she would never dispense of his company even when she had other love interests, and to be fair to her, he too had many other affairs whilst being close to Alice.

John with Hat by Alice Neel (1935)
John with Hat by Alice Neel (1935)

Neel completed a portrait of John in 1935 entitled John with Hat in which we see him in a white suit wearing a hat with the sea as the background.  In an interview with Patricia Hills in 1982, Neel talked about the painting and voiced her dislike of Rothschild’s character:

“…I painted him in a hat, that’s when I decided to get rid of him……I thought anybody that could take that much joy out of the hat and suit, there was something wrong with him……He was utterly empty.  He really had the makings of a voyeur in that way…”

Of course she didn’t dump John.  Maybe sense prevailed or as she put it:

“…But I didn’t really get rid of him because he kept pursuing me and I had such a hard life that it was very nice to go to Longchamps or the Harvard club for dinner…”

Kenneth Fearing by Alice Neel (1935)
Kenneth Fearing by Alice Neel (1935)

It was the 1930’s and America at this time was in the middle of the Great Depression and the labour classes were suffering badly.  One of the great poets and novelist of the time, who encapsulated in his work those desperate times, was Kenneth Fearing and he was depicted in a 1935 painting by Alice Neel.  Fearing was a fervent left wing radical and Marxist and co-founder of the Partisan Review, a literary and arts magazine with close ties with the Communist Party, USA.  He championed the cause of the downtrodden worker and is depicted in one of his favourite haunts, a late night coffee shop. Fearing is illuminated by a single lightbulb, a symbol of enlightenment and modernism.  It is a painting of symbolist iconography.   We see him wearing his large artsy-type glasses, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, reading a book which is propped up in front of him.   Alice Neel depicted a skeleton squeezing blood out of Fearing’s heart, which was meant to symbolise his heartfelt feelings for all the people who were suffering during the troubled times of the Depression.  Fearing may not have been impressed by this iconography as when he saw the work he told Neel to remove what he termed “that Fauntleroy” from his heart.  However, Neel was adamant about the inclusion saying:

“…The reason I put it there was that even though he wrote ironic poetry, I thought his heart bled for the grief of the world…”

 There are a number of minor “characters” depicted in the work including, in the foreground, a baby, which was said to be Fearing’s son who was born that year, and a newlywed couple. The rest of the cast of characters formed part of a tormented world, a world of disorder and chaos, which we see going on around Fearing whilst he quietly reads his book.  In the foreground there are some disfigured soldiers and bleeding corpses.  In the right background we can see police beating civilians.

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel (1935)
Pat Whalen by Alice Neel (1935)

Another communist to feature in one of Neel’s 1935 paintings was the Irish labour organiser, Pat Whalen, a longshoreman who had organised many dock strikes.  He sits at a bare wooden table in his creased and shabby coat and open-necked shirt. The background is bare.  This painting is all about the man and his face, his furrowed brow and piercing blue eyes.   She depicts him staring into the middle-distance of a promised future, his heavy, oversized fists clenched over a copy of the Daily Worker, which was the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) newspaper.

José Santiago Negron by Alice Neel
José Santiago Negron by Alice Neel

In September 1935, Alice Neel moved alone to an apartment in West 17th Street in New York. She would not countenance John moving in with her so he moved to his own apartment close by.  Alice would return to Spring Lake every summer but not to the small cottage but to a larger house she bought later.     It was shortly after her arrival in New York that Alice and John Rothschild visited the nightclub, La Casita, and there, performing in a band, was José Santiago Négrón a handsome Puerto Rican nightclub singer and guitarist. Alice was immediately attracted to the “beautiful Latino”.   He was slender, dark and handsome.  He was also ten years younger than Alice and was married with a young child, Sheila.  Alice acknowledged the similarity between him and her first husband as quoted by Cindy Nemser, the American art historian and writer and founder and editor of the Feminist Art Journal:

“…You know what he was?  He was a substitute for my Cuban husband although he was completely different…”

During an interview with the American art historian Patricia Hills, Neel recounted that first meeting with Negron and her successful seduction of the Puerto Rican:

“…I went to the nightclub with John [Rothschild] and I had on a silver lame dress that was beautiful and José was charmed with all this wealth and elegance.   Toward José I made my one aggressive action.  I went down there one night, to that nightclub, and I knew José was going to want to come home with me, and he did…”

Sheila by Alice Neel (1938)
Sheila by Alice Neel (1938)

In a very short time Negron left his wife Molly and child Sheila and moved in with Alice.

Nazis murder Jews by Alice Neel (1936)
Nazis murder Jews by Alice Neel (1936)

In September 1936 Alice Neel completed a work entitled Nazis Murdered Jews in which she depicts a Communist organised torchlight protest at which she and some of her Works Progress Administration (WPA) colleagues took part.  Neel was one of the few artists of the time that highlighted the fate of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis.

Tragedy once again struck Alice in 1937.  In January that year she became pregnant, much to her delight but much to the prospective father, José Negrón’s displeasure.  He threatened to leave her.  In July, six months into the pregnancy she had a miscarriage.  Her unborn daughter had been strangled by her own umbilical cord.  Add to this heartbreak, the fact that Alice and José had money problems and this was also causing stress to their relationship.  Notwithstanding this, Alice became pregnant again at the end of 1938.  She must have been in a quandary as to what to do as it is known that her friend John Rothschild gave her money for an abortion and although she accepted the gift, she spent it on a phonograph!

Elenka by Alice Neel (1936)
Elenka by Alice Neel (1936)

The imminent birth of her child made Alice and José abandon the bohemian life of Greenwich Village and move to a quieter apartment in East 107th Street in the Spanish Harlem neighbourhood of Upper Manhattan and it is in this area where she would remain for the next twenty-four years.  This neighbourhood proved a wonderful place for her to paint pictures of her surroundings and the many characters who lived there.

Life with José Negrón was good.  In a 1969 interview she mused joyfully about those days referring to her then unborn child:

“…I was out in nightclubs every night.   I did the tango, the rhumba, all those dances.  Richard is the product of nightclubs…”

The Family by Alice Neel (1938)
The Family by Alice Neel (1938)

On September 14th 1939 Alice gave birth to her first son.  Alice and José called him Neel Santiago but this strange combination of Christian name and surname, Neel Neel, was later dropped and he became known as Richard Neel.  In December 1935, less than three months after the birth of his son, José Negrón walked out of the relationship with Neel,  This was the second time he did this, having left his wife Molly and their daughter, Stella, to live with Alice.  José Negrón’s nephew Ralph Marrero commented on the relationship break-up:

“…I don’t think Alice was interested in staying in touch with José.  Alice was more interested in her art and José was interested in himself…”

Alice put a different spin on the event in an interview with Jonathan Brand in 1969.  She stated:

“…Of course José should never have done what he did.  It was wrong…..He never should have left like that.  I could have tried to stop him but the whole thing sickened me.  I thought it was so frivolous.  We had lived together for five years…..why pick this time when this little kid is maybe four or five months old and just leave like that?  I thought it was frightful…”

José Negrón had never married Alice but would later  go on to marry two more times and, although born a Catholic, ended up becoming an Episcopal priest.

T B Harlem by Alice Neel (1940)
T B Harlem by Alice Neel (1940)

One of the most moving paintings Alice Neel did featuring José Negrón’s family was one entitled T.B. Harlem which she completed in 1940, a year after José had left the family home.  It was a painting which drew attention to the poverty and social isues of the time and yet never lost sight of the individuality of the sitter.   In this painting, Neel depicted José’s brother Carlos Negrón. Carlos was just twenty-four at the time of the painting and had, two years earlier, moved from Puerto Rico to Spanish Harlem.  At this time tuberculosis spread in overcrowded urban neighbourhoods, and at the time of the painting, the only available treatments to counteract the disease were radical. In the painting we see Carlos with a bandage on his chest covering the wound from his thoracoplasty, a procedure that was originally designed to permanently collapse the cavities of pulmonary tuberculosis by removing the ribs from the chest and by so doing, rest the tuberculosis-infected lung by removing ribs.  Although it is a good likeness of Carlos, Neel distorted and elongated his neck and arms. In the painting Alice has used heavy, dark lines to emphasize and flatten Carlos’ silhouette and the lines around his wound draw attention to the sunken misshapenness of his left side. Carlos’ face conveys a sense of dignity.  His right hand lies across his chest in a pose which we saw in traditional images of the martyred Christ.

………to be continued.

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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)

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

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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)