With a big new exhibit now up at one of the country’s premier museums, now is a good time to remember a pioneer of American painting.
When was the last time you remember seeing a painter on The Tonight Show? If you’re like me, you couldn’t answer that question very quickly, and, when you finally did, you might well say “uh, never.”
If you had tuned in to Johnny Carson on the night of February 21, 1984, alongside an Olympic skier, and actress Mariette Hartley, you’d have met a charming and vivacious 84-year-old painter named Alice Neel. Carson seemed captivated by her.
Alice Neel was born in Pennsylvania in January of 1900. She graduated from high school in 1918 and three years later began talking art classes at the Philadelphia
School of Design for Women. She won prizes at the school for her paintings, graduated in 1925, and afterwards married a Cuban artist. They moved to Havana where she became part of that city’s burgeoning avant-garde art scene. Within a few years however she was back in the United States; her first daughter died of diphtheria; and her husband disappeared with their second daughter. Neel had a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide, and was institutionalized.
In 1933, out of the hospital and on her own, she became one of the first artists to work with the Federal Works of Art Project, part of FDR’s “New Deal,” making $30 a week painting street scenes and people. She drifted into communist circles in which she would move for the rest of her life, and increasingly painted protestors, activists, mothers with children, and those whom American society had left behind.
While her content was aggressively realist, her style was less so, being more expressionistic. The combination didn’t translate to popularity. “I went against the grain,” she said in 1984, “and you get punished for that.” It really wasn’t until the end of the 1960s, when cultural changes sort of caught up with her, that her reputation as an artist began to grow. In 1974 she had a big retrospective of her work at the Whitney Museum in New York where the entire second floor was given over to her frank and often jarring depictions of humanity. The last decade of her life was “a triumphal march,” said historian Gerald Meyer in 2014.
Now through the first of August there’s a big exhibit of her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled, fittingly enough, “People Come First.” It positions her, the museum says, “as one of the century’s most radical painters, a champion of social justice whose longstanding commitment to humanist principles inspired her life as well as her art….” It’s an exhibit worth your time if you can go see it.
Alice Neel died in October, 1984 but right now, her work is more alive and vibrant than ever.