Saturday, February 12, 2011


This book, by Phoebe Hoban, is a biography of the artist, Alice Neel.  Alice was known for her portraits of everyone from women and children in Spanish Harlem in the 1920's and 1930's to Mayor Ed Koch and Andy Warhol in the 1970's and 1980's.  I love the title of the book because Alice's portraits were never pretty.  They dug through the veneer of a person into his or her inner life and fears.  Like a shrewd psychologist, Alice sought out the insecurities and the foibles of the person's life and painted that.  Many people were afraid to pose for her (I would have been) - and yet she talked many people (family, friends, famous and infamous) into posing nude for her.

Born January 1900 in Philadelphia, Alice Neel was raised in the lower middle class neighborhood of Colwyn, PA, the 4th of 5 children.  She knew early on that she wanted to be an artist.  

In 1921, Alice used her own savings of $100 to pay the tuition for her first year at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women.  She didn't want to study at the more prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (the alma mater of Mary Cassett) because she said she didn't want to be taught Impressionism.  She also knew that boys distracted her and she wanted to be taught in a women's school.  She was good enough that first year to earn a full scholarship for the remaining 3 years, and she was among the first women students to be allowed to study live male nudes. 

While attending the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts' summer school in Chester Springs, Alice fell in love with Carlos Enriquez, a tall, dark and handsome Cuban from a wealthy family.  Carlos did not want to follow in his father's footsteps and run the sugar plantation in Cuba.  He, too, wanted to create art.  In Alice and Carlos we find two souls, with very different backgrounds, both striving for the same thing - the freedom to create art.  Alice and Carlos had a 3-week romance at the summer get-away, in spite of the fact that she was at the summer school thanks to a boyfriend paying the $30 fee for the 6 week course.  Alice often juggled 2 men at the same time, with one being her romantic and sexual interest and the other being her financial and emotional support.

The antics of Carlos and Alice at the summer school caused quite a stir (events that included them dressing in drag with Alice as the man and Carlos as the woman at a school party).  Carlos' beligerent attitude toward his instructors eventually got Carlos expelled.  Carlos' father called him back to Havana and Carlos and Alice didn't see each other for a year.  They did continue their relationship via letters.  Carlos returned to PA in May 1925; he and Alice married in June 1925, and became parents of their first child, Santillana, a baby girl born in December 1926.  The child was born in Cuba, where Carlos and Alice lived with his parents for 8 months before finding a small apartment of their own. 

(Alice gained a strong art background at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women.  She took many drawing and drafting classes.  For those who think her paintings show a lack of drawing skills, others say her skills were excellent and she chose to "warp" certain features of her sitters to make a point about the person.)

Alice's time in Cuba was a time of Cuba's political and cultural growth.  Carlos and Alice joined other artists who painted together, and they both had several paintings at the Salon de Bellas Artes from March - April 1927.  They were both well received and were something of a famous artistic couple in Havana at the time. 

For whatever reason, Alice (with Santillana in tow) returned to Colwyn, PA while her paintings were still on display in the Bellas Artes show.  Perhaps her inlaws were too conventional and didn't understand Alice's bohemian life-style; perhaps she knew Carlos could not support the family (he quit the only job he had and lived on a stipend from his father); perhaps she was simply homesick.  She never said why.  She stayed in Colwyn without Carlos (living with her parents) until he returned to PA in October 1927 and they moved to a tiny apartment in New York City.  Because he left Cuba and didn't bring back his wife and daughter, he was cut off from his father's monetary support.  Alice, Carlos and Santillana were almost starving in NYC and it is no surprise that young Santillana became ill - with diptheria - and died in December 1927.  Friends of the family say she was malnourished and could not fight the disease that killed many children that year. 

The painting, The Futility of Effort, was based on a sketch Alice drew when Santillana died.  Grey, sad, minimalist, it perhaps portrays some of the feelings Alice felt on losing her first child.

Alice said she was so empty losing Santillana that there was nothing for her to do but have another baby.  She got pregnant almost immediately even though times were still very hard.  Alice and Carlos had to take any job they could get, Carlos drawing and illustrating for newspapers and Saks Department Store, Alice working at a bank. 

Isabella (who was always called Isabetta) was born November 1928. 

Alice painted Well Baby Clinic after Isabetta's birth.  No private rooms and specialized care here, but a room full of newly delivered mothers and their babies. 

Although Alice had her second daughter so soon after the death of her first, she knew she was not cut out for motherhood in the traditional sense.  She wanted to paint!  How could she paint when she had to work a full time job and care for an infant child?  How could she paint when that child became a toddler, having to be watched at all times?  There were stories of her lax mothering from several friends who said that Isabetta was often left outside on the fire escape when Carlos and Alice had parties at their house, or when Alice was trying to find time to paint and didn't want the little girl underfoot. 

There was no wonder that Carlos took Isabetta back to Cuba when he returned in May 1930.  It was supposed to be a trip to introduce their granddaughter to Carlos' parents; a short trip and then on to Paris, where Alice would meet them.  Carlos and Isabetta went to Cuba; Carlos went on to Paris, leaving Isabetta in the care of his family (his parents and 2 unmarried sisters). 

What does Alice do when she realizes what Carlos has done?  Nothing.  She does nothing to get her daughter back.  She tells friends that her inlaws would have returned the girl but she was better off in Cuba.  She let her daughter stay in Cuba, and would only see her again only one more time in her life. 

Alice said she was torn between her love for her art and her love for the girl.  She couldn't choose so she did nothing.  Doing nothing in the face of having to make a hard decision was, like her juggling of two lovers at once, a life-long theme for Alice. 

Was this decision to leave her daughter in Cuba an easy one?  If the dissertion of Carlos, the death of her first daughter, and then the loss of her second daughter was easy, I don't think Alice would have gone through the next few years fighting clinical depression and many suicide attempts.  I don't think she would have been committed (May 1931) to a private asylum one year after Carlos left with Isabetta. 

The photos shared here of Neels' paintings are from the book.  For more paintings and information about Alice Neel, please go to the site:

More to come later on Alice Neel, her life and work.


jgr said...

Wow, this is very interesting. Thank you for this review, I'll look forward to the next 'installment'.
Meanwhile I hope your weekend is going well, it's warm here -yay!

Carrie H. said...

I always liked Neel's work but this is the first time I've ever heard any of yer young life. Thanks for getting me up to date.

Barb Sailor said...

What a sad life she had pursuing her art...women in the arts have never had it easy. She was, in my opinion, a master artist - her portraits touch me. Thanks for writing about this book, Rhonda.

the art of the dance is like chocolate said...

i love her work too!

Carol Flatt said...

This is a wonderful piece you've written, Rhonda, about Alice Neel. I look forward to reading more.

hw (hallie) farber said...

Thanks. I think it is the "warp" that gives life to Neel's paintings. I've always loved that slight skew.

Jane said...

Interesting reading, I love the way you tell the story , the facts without ever judging or putting any personal opinions between the lines. It would be so easy to do, and let's be would be very easy to judge Alice. I am looking forward to read more.

Jane said...

Interesting, Rhonda. Chester Springs, PA, was right around the corner from where I lived for a long time. Not a well-known place but still an artists' place.

Watercolors by Susan Roper said...

One of my favorite "artsy" quotes is from Alice Neel: "Keep on painting, no matter how difficult, unless it kills you and then you know you have gone too far"! She was a strong woman, but also weak in many ways. Nice commentary on this book.

RH Carpenter said...

Thanks, Jane. We are having a warm spell - finally!!

Carrie, glad you are enjoying it. More to come!

Barb, yes, she had some tragedies and made some very bad choices in her life - and she didn't become "famous" until her 60's and 70's but then she wowed the world!

Thanks, AOTDance!

Carol, glad you liked it. Stay tuned for more to come later.

Hallie, that personal warping was her own thing - a bit like Egon Schiele's but not exactly - she really didn't want to paint society portraits (so she didn't). Sometimes when you go your own way like that, the world has to catch up.

Jane (in Italy) - thanks for that. I try not to put much more than the facts in my own words into the bios. I'm glad it's coming across that way. It gets harder not to judge later on, though...

Jane (in PA), I think she got out of there as soon as she could, wanting to be out from under her parents' influence and traditional ways. She always saw herself as bohemian and out there :)

Susan, that's one of my faves, too! And I think she painted every single day (if she could) up to the day she died.