Saturday, March 5, 2011


Alice Neel and Sam Brody.

 Alice and Sam had a very volatile life together. When they began living together, Sam was married with two children but had no qualms about leaving them to move in with Alice. When Alice met Sam, she felt she had found someone who moved her, physically and mentally. Since fidelity was never something Alice required from her men it didn’t seem to be a problem that Brody had many women on the side throughout he and Alice’s relationship. Brody, although disloyal when it came to other woman, was fiercely loyal to Alice when it came to her artwork.

In September 1941, Alice gave birth to his son, Hartley Stockton Neel and the family soon moved to Spanish Harlem.

Sam had taken an instant dislike to Alice’s son by Jose Negron and the birth of his own son did nothing to lessen that dislike, which was expressed as constant verbal abuse and intermittent physical abuse. Neel said she stayed with Sam Brody, knowing he was abusive to her son, Richard, because “I was very inert. I had the two children. I had the house. I had a basis of living. I wasn’t going to leave that or give it up, or change it.” Sam once broke Richard’s collarbone and even threatened to kill him if he learned how to read. He told Alice that, if she pushed Richard off a cliff, he would buy her a piano. Richard’s half-brother, Hartley, often came to Richard’s defense against Brody.

While this was going on, Alice continued to paint. She painted her friends, her artist peers, her lovers, her children, and the people living in Spanish Harlem, where she and Sam made their home.  She had a solo exhibition (her first since May 1938) in March 1944. She was also included in a group show in 1943 titled “Exhibition by 31 Women” in the newly opened Peggy Guggenheim gallery, The Art of This Century. The show included Djuna Barnes, Frida Kahlo, Gypsy Rose Lee and Louise Nevelson. In 1945, Guggenheim had another show titled “The Women” but Alice was not included in that show. Neel’s belief in mainly figurative work would doom her to obscurity in the decades that Abstract Expressionism and Surrealist paintings were the rave in the galleries.

Although Alice was on welfare during the years her two son’s were young, she was an expert at manipulating the system in order to hide any luxuries the family had (like the telephone, the t.v., and her country house in Spring Lake). She managed to finagle top-notch educations for both of her boys, including ballet lessons for Hartley and piano lessons for Richard (as well as sending Richard to a special school for the blind). She also got full scholarships for both boys to a progressive boarding school in New Hampshire and, finally, to Columbia University. When the boys were old enough to learn about their peers’ families and lifestyle, they realized their own lifestyle was distinctly different. They were exposed to a variety of people – not just their mother’s lovers (Sam and John), but the lovers of her lovers (both Sam and John had a bevy of other women while continuing a relationship with Alice.

During this time, a major presence in the boy’s life – one who acted as a surrogate father to both – was Phillip Bonosky, a journalist. Neither Richard nor Hartley felt like Sam was a father to them. As an adult, Hartley completely disowned Sam and asked Richard to do the same. They both suffered from “the Bohemian lifestyle” led by their mother and her various men.

Although there was never a sexual relationship between Bonosky and Alice, he became more than just a casual friend, as evidenced by his time spent with her sons. Bonosky was a writer and kept a very revealing journal of his time spent at the Neel-Brody home. He was taken with Alice’s art work and her personality. Estranged from his own son and separated from his wife, having the two boys around filled an emptiness in him. He was especially fond of Richard and made it his goal to keep him away from Sam. Neel illustrated a couple of stories by Bonosky so they had a working relationship as well as a personal relationship. The time spent in the Neel–Brody household showed Bonosky “the profound corruption of this woman whose round smiling face hides so much that is deadly” when he saw Brody cooking for himself and his son, Hartley and excluding Richard from the meal entirely. Bonosky also saw, or heard from Richard, instances where Brody physically abused Alice, once even spraying DDT in her face. Bonosky says Alice forgave Brody everything because he loved her work.

For whatever reason Alice continued to live to Sam, she was not ignorant of the suffering this caused.  Two paintings, in particular, show clear evidence the pain:
A painting of Sam with horns like a devil and all in darks and mottled coloring
A painting of Alice holding Richard, the sadness evident in the pale skin and hollowed eyes. 

At the age of 50, Alice Neel had two young children, nine and eleven, to raise. She also had her hands full juggling Sam Brody and John Rothschild. And she painted daily. She had a solo exhibit the day after Christmas, 1950, but Alice was under FBI surveillance by March 1951 due to the rampant McCarthyism in the U.S. in the 1950’s. She had just one other show in 1951 and was regarded as passé by the up-and-coming artists of the decade. Bonosky wrote that Alice “felt marginalized – simply wiped off the map – because she remained a realist.” Alice didn’t do much to help her cause, keeping her distance from the bevy of art galleries and artist studios in a part of New York that was 100 blocks from her home and her kitchen studio. She did not summer on the Hamptons as many artists did, but continued to return each summer to her house in New Jersey. Her paintings distanced her from the nouveau elite of the art world while she physically distanced herself.

(Summarized from reading the biography Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban.)


MB Shaw said...

Her work is so powerful, just full of emotion.

Jan Yates, SCA said...

Thanks for sharing re Alice Neel-and her turbulent family life--one of my favourite paintings was her nude self portrait painted in her seventies i belive--have you watched the documentary where her sons were interviewed?

I also REAlly like your figure studies and approaches below.

Irina said...

Rhonda, thank you very much!

L Young said...

Very interesting reading Rhonda; poor Alice. I'm curious where you locate the material you post. Fascinating.

RH Carpenter said...

You're right, Mary Beth, this is a lot of raw emotion in her portraits of people and somewhat of caricatures but not in a funny way.

Jan, she definitely had a lot of downs until she was much older. The book has that self-portrait in it. I did see the documentary a few year's ago where Hartley and Richard talked about her.

You're welcome, Irina.

Linda, it's from a biography called The Art of Not Sitting Pretty. More to come later.

Jane said...

You "promised" it wouldn't get any better, and it certainly didn't. But thank you Rhonda, I am reading hungrily.

Katherine Thomas said...

Wow, that's an amazing story... and that first painting of Sam... oh my goodness. Thanks for posting this!

RH Carpenter said...

Yes, Jane, I warned you - now, after she hits 55 she grows into her own space and I think a lot of that has to do with the freedom of no revolving men in her life and the children are grown and on their own.

Katherine, she made you feel the paintings - at least what she was feeling as she painted them, stripping away things and adding things she saw that maybe the sitter did not :) Wouldn't that be something - to really paint people the way they are, not the way they want to be perceived?

Celeste Bergin said...

great summary-- very interesting...makes me want to read the book. thanks for thinking to write about her. Her work just stops a person in their tracks.

Prabha Narayanan said...

Never knew Neel till you started writing about her. Thanks Rhonda! She is such a serious artist.

I liked your recent figure drawings. I am tempted to try some myself for practice.

Hope all goes well with your heart. Take care.

RH Carpenter said...

Celeste, I think you'd enjoy the book - my only compaint is the author spends too much time on the backgrounds of the people in her life - and it needs more paintings :)

Prabha, glad I could introduce you to an artist. I think if you look up more, you'll enjoy her works. She really came into her own in the 70's and 80's.