Alice Neel Beat the Art Market by Sticking to Her Aesthetic

Once rejected by critics, the Colwyn native’s paintings now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Alice Neel's 1970 work “Jackie Curtiss and Ritta Redd.”

If “the market” knew best, it would never change its mind. But, in fact, it does.

The art market, for instance, changed its mind about Alice Neel of Colwyn, who painted what interested her rather than what others wanted to buy. She rarely took commissions or sold a painting. At times, Neel survived on welfare and shoplifting.

Only in her 60s did artistic assessments of her work change. And now? In 2008, Christie’s auction house in New York sold a collection of a dozen Neel works for prices ranging from $180,000 to $780,000 each.

“In every aspect of her life,” wrote biographer Phoebe Hoban, “Neel dictated her own terms—whether it was defiantly painting figurative pieces at the height of Abstract Expressionism or finessing scholarships for her sons at the (private, expensive) Rudolf Steiner School. Although she herself would probably have rejected such labels, she was America’s first feminist, multicultural artist, a populist painter for the ages.”

Born in Merion Square, Neel was the daughter of George Washington Neel, an accountant for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Alice Concross Hartley. The family moved to then-rural Colwyn when she was a few months old. Neel was the fourth of five children; her eldest brother, Hartley, died of diphtheria before she was born.

Hoban described the family as lower middle class, perhaps with some distinguished and wealthy ancestors—Neel believed she was related to Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. None of that luster filtered down to the Neels.

“The only thing George Washington Neel inherited from his parents,” wrote Hoban, “was a lifelong bias against Bohemians.” For her part, Neel described her father as a “little gray man”—quiet, passive and dominated by his wife.

Neel gravitated to her mother because “she was bright, she knew more and she was quicker on the draw.” However, Alice Hartley Neel was also a Victorian—regimented, autocratic and with attitudes about women that one might expect from an unenlightened man. “Alice did everything imaginable to be anything but a lady,” said George Neel. “Her habits were always essentially disgusting. Her fingernails were dirty. Alice didn’t like to bathe and had a habit of eating her bread sideways. She could never do anything like any normal person would do.”

As a nephew put it, Neel “decided already as a very small child, ‘This house is unbearable. Therefore, I must make a world of my own beyond it.’”

After graduating high school in 1918, Neel took the Civil Service exam and got a job as a file clerk with the Army Air Corps in Philadelphia. During the following three years, she worked a series of such jobs while taking art classes at night, first at the School of Industrial Art.

Neel rejected impressionism for ashcan realism, a style best known for portraying everyday life. Many ashcan artists saw themselves as colleagues of muckraking journalists such as Upton Sinclair who, about the same time, were calling attention to slums and working conditions.

Neel moved on to the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art), deliberately avoiding the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. PAFA was coed, and Neel wished to avoid the distraction of men; it also emphasized expressionism and form, and she wasn’t interested in either. After Neel paid the $100 annual tuition for her first year, her talent won a scholarship for Delaware County residents that paid for her remaining three years. In her final year, she won the prize for best painting in her life class.

In 1924, at PAFA’s summer school in Chester Springs, Neel met Carlos Enriquez de Gomez. The son of a wealthy Havana family that opposed his notions of becoming an artist, Gomez had been sent north to attend business school, but had since reverted. According to Hoban, he came across as “an exotic Bohemian.” The rebellious Neel was immediately attracted.

By the time she graduated a year later, they had married. Soon, the couple moved to Havana, living first with Gomez’s parents, then on their own. They showed their works, dabbled in anti-establishment politics and ran with an avant garde crowd. At the same time, they lived in a mansion with seven servants. It was a long way from Colwyn.

In 1927, the couple moved to New York, where Neel took a job in a bookstore. Then their child, Santillana, died of diphtheria just before her first birthday. Some art critics date the themes of motherhood, loss and anxiety in Neel’s works to the trauma of this period.

Neel was soon pregnant again and, in 1928, gave birth to a second daughter. It was the inspiration for “Well Baby Clinic,” a bleak depiction of mothers and babies in a maternity clinic that suggests Neel’s disenchantment with the process.

In 1930, Carlos announced that he was going to Paris. Instead, he returned to Cuba, and took Isabetta. Alice returned to her parents’ house in Colwyn—never an easy place to live. She escaped daily by taking the train into Philadelphia to paint.

“I had a terrible life,” she later recalled. “But I turned out any number of great paintings.”

Among them were portraits of her studio mates: “Ethel Ashton” and “Rhode Meyers in the Blue Hat.” According to Hoban, Neel depicted Ethel as “nearly crippled with self-conscious (sic) by her own exposure.”

Eventually, Neel collapsed—the effect, concluded Hoban, of losing Santillana, Carlos and Isabetta, plus perhaps guilt over feeling liberated from family responsibilities to paint. “One of the reasons I had the breakdown, I never showed any grief,” she said later. “I just opened up and everything let go. Then, I had Freud’s classic hysteria. I died every day.”

Neel was hospitalized. At her family’s urging, Gomez visited, then left. Neel never saw him again, and her daughter only rarely. Soon after, she attempted suicide. Neel spent the following year in a private sanatorium in Gladwyne, where she painted as therapy.

Released in 1931, Neel eventually returned to New York, living in Greenwich Village with a sailor, Ken Doolittle, she had met through friends. However, the relationship soured. Doolittle, an opium addict, resented the time Neel spent painting, and so slashed 60 of her paintings and burned another 300. She subsequently had two sons by different fathers—Jose Santiago, a nightclub entertainer, and Sam Brody, a Marxist filmmaker. Neel raised them alone.

In the 1930s, Neel found work with the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, which lasted into the early ’40s. There were some minor exhibitions, but her style and subjects weren’t popular.

Neel painted people, mainly families and people from the neighborhood. She favored portraits of people who were suffering, but also some still lifes and cityscapes. Her work reflects the political issues of the day. In 1936, she painted “Nazi Murder Jews,” which depicted a Communist torchlight parade and a figure carrying a sign with those three words.

But what the market wanted was abstract expressionism. Neel didn’t care.

In 1942, she left Greenwich Village for Spanish Harlem. There, finances became so difficult that, to feed her boys, Neel went on welfare and, occasionally, shoplifted. In the process, Neel found new inspiration: Her 1950 work, “Black Spanish Family,” emphasizes—without romanticizing or patronizing—the dignity of a mother and two daughters who pose in their Sunday best.

Sitting for Neel required patience.

“She expected you to hold still for hours, even when your arm was killing you,” recalled Ginny Neel, a daughter-in-law. As she worked, Neel threw questions at her sitters, trying to force them to reveal their personalities, which she then conveyed on the canvas in a bold, black outline. If she thought a sitter’s attention was fading, added Ginny, “she would wake you up by making a loud meowing sound.”

Neel often used animals in her work, noted Kathryn Hughes, an art critic for the London Telegraph. Animals offered new ways of painting shape and color, and sometimes had psychological meaning. Her 1962 painting, “Carol With Dog,” pairs a woman dressed to show off her “lush femininity” with a poodle whose head is clipped to produce a high crown of curls. The painting “mocks the whole business of presenting a public self to the world,” wrote Hughes.

In the 1960s, artistic tastes changed. Abstract art seemed cold, and Neel’s “rich interrogation of the human condition” seemed more relevant. She made lots of trendy friends, including Andy Warhol, painting him shirtless, wearing a truss intended to protect stomach muscles damaged in an assassination attempt two years earlier.

By the time she was in her 80s, Neel was a star. She appeared on The Tonight Show and was guest-of-honor at a dinner with New York mayor Ed Koch. The Whitney Museum mounted a major exhibit.

So, in the end, she won. Neel had painted what and as she pleased, and eventually the market obeyed.

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