Hot off the griddle: The tumultuous life of Alice Neel

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By the time Alice Neel turned 45, she was desperately poor, painting in a makeshift studio in her home and shoplifting to support her sons. She had already lost two children, one through illness and one through what would today be described as kidnapping. She’d endured critical rejection and mental collapse, with only a few, small-time exhibitions to her name.

How, then, can this be the same artist whose legacy now includes solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, London’s Tate Modern, and, as of today, The Barbican? Well, Neel only rose to fame in her 60s. Before this point, she was vilified and erased for depicting those that society didn’t want to see: activists, ethnic minorities, queer people… it was her determination to represent them that, arguably, made her one of them.

alice neel the barbican

Alice Neel at the age of 29, 1929. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel.

Neel’s poor fortune started young. Shortly after she entered the world, in 1900, her oldest brother died of diphtheria. Her family were straight-laced Pennsylvanians, with her mother once telling her, “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, you’re only a girl.” At 21, Neel enrolled at a women’s art school – a move designed to resist the temptations of the opposite sex, she said.

It didn’t take long after graduating for temptation to come knocking, however. Neel met Carlos Enríquez, a wealthy Cuban painter, and married him less than a year later, moving to Havana. It was here, surrounded by sticky heat, colonial villas and salsa music, that Neel found her stride; she was embraced by the Cuban avant-garde, exhibiting alongside proponents of the national Vanguardia Movement. On Boxing Day 1926, Neel gave birth to a daughter, Santillana.

alice neel art exhibition

Support the Union, 1937. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel.

For a while life was good – but it proved a calm before the storm. Neel and Enríquez returned to the US in 1927, shortly before losing Santillana to the same disease that killed Neel’s brother. She became pregnant again, giving birth to Isabetta the following year. A couple of years later, Enríquez told Neel he was going to Paris to find them a place to live. Instead, he returned to Cuba, taking Isabetta with him. Neel suffered a massive nervous breakdown and attempted suicide in response to the loss.

This was a watershed moment for Neel’s art. She poured her trauma into her paintings, depicting themes of motherhood and loss and developing her signature anxious, frenetic style while on the suicide ward of the Philadelphia General Hospital. Isabetta’s birth was the inspiration for Well Baby Clinic (1929), a bleak portrait of a maternity ward more reminiscent of an insane asylum.

After being discharged almost a year later, Neel moved to New York, where she painted outcasts and oddballs like Joe Gould, a local eccentric also known as ‘Professor Seagull’, representing him with multiple penises to symbolise his inflated ego. She painted Mother Bloor and Pat Whelan – local labour organisers and communist activists. Neel also had an affair with a heroin-addicted sailor named Kenneth Doolittle, who eventually set 350 of her artworks on fire.

Up to this point, Neel had mainly depicted men, but at some point during the 1930s, her focus switched to female nudes. But these were no pastel-hued Venuses; these were Neel’s neighbours in Spanish Harlem, immigrants, and pregnant women. They were harsh and awkward, their wonky bodies inverting and protruding in all the ‘wrong’ places. In other words, they existed completely outside of the male gaze.

Speaking on her pregnant nudes, Neel said, “It isn’t what appeals to me, it’s just a fact of life… I feel as a subject it’s perfectly legitimate, and people out of a false modesty, or being sissies, never show it… Something that primitives did, but modern painters have shied away from because women were always done as sexual objects. A pregnant woman has a claim staked out; she is not for sale.”

Take Neel’s portrait of her school friend Ethel V. Ashton as an example: Ashton is exposed and uncomfortable, crouching down with a glint of fear in her eye. When the painting was exhibited it was maligned by critics. Even Ashton hated it. But Neel wasn’t interested in flattering anyone, be it her subject or the received artistic wisdom of the time.

By the 1940s, Neel had two sons, the first with a Puerto Rican musician and the second with a communist intellectual. But she was living on welfare, and working out of her home; sitters posed mere moments from where her children slept. The following decade Neel was investigated by the FBI, having been identified as a “romantic Bohemian type Communist”. It’s hard not to think that such a description would have pleased her; indeed, when two agents came to her door, she asked them to sit for a painting.

The emergence of second-wave feminism breathed new life into Neel’s work. As 1960’s liberalism took hold, the world caught up with her – finally, an environment existed where her paintings could be celebrated. In fact, Neel’s depiction of women, and rejection of the male gaze, made her something of a feminist icon. She was even commissioned to create a portrait of women’s rights activist Kate Millett for Time magazine.

In the ensuing years, Neel garnered semi-celebrity stature – Jimmy Carter presented her with a National Women’s Caucus for Art award, and, in 1970, she painted Andy Warhol. In quintessentially Neel fashion, the pop artist looks fleshy and defenceless; his eyes are averted and his stomach sags over the surgical corset he wore after being shot.

alice neel self portrait

Self Portrait, 1980. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel.

It was, some might argue, too little too late. Neel died in 1984, but she had one more revolutionary reject to depict before she did: herself. She painted her first self-portrait at the age of 80; she’s fully nude – her breasts and belly sag and she stares at the viewer with an expression that is both disgruntled and defiant. “I waited until now, when people would accuse me of insanity rather than vanity,” Neel said of the image.

When Neel was in her 80s, she would open phone calls with, “Guess what, I’m alive!” This is one of the great tragedies of her life – her career was born at the age of 60, and she was in her (professional) prime while ailing with advanced colon cancer. Now, nearly 40 years after her death, Neel has aged like a fine wine, becoming a mainstay in the catalogues of acclaimed portrait artists. And with one of the most extensive showings of her work kicking off in London, she is still very much ‘alive’.

‘Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle’ is at the Barbican until 21 May 2023. Visit

Read more: The best London exhibitions opening in 2023

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