IIf “the market” knew, it would never change its mind. But, in fact, it is.
The art market, for example, changed its mind about Colwyn’s Alice Neel, who painted what interested her rather than what others wanted to buy. She rarely took orders or sold a painting. At times, Neel survived on welfare and shoplifting.
It was only in his sixties that artistic appreciations of his work changed. And now? In 2008, Christie’s auction house in New York sold a collection of a dozen works by Neel at prices ranging from $180,000 to $780,000 each.
“In all aspects of his life,” wrote biographer Phoebe Hoban, “Neel dictated his own terms, whether defiantly painting figurative pieces at the height of Abstract Expressionism or getting scholarships for her sons to the (private and expensive) Rudolf Steiner school.. Although she herself would probably have rejected such labels, she was America’s first feminist and multicultural artist, a painter populist for the ages.
Born in Merion Square, Neel was the daughter of Pennsylvania Railroad accountant George Washington Neel 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; his older brother, Hartley, died of diphtheria before he was born.
Hoban described the family as lower-middle-class, possibly with distinguished and wealthy ancestors – Neel thought they were related to Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. None of that shine has filtered down to the Neels.
“The one thing George Washington Neel inherited from his parents,” Hoban wrote, “was a lifelong bias against bohemians.” For his part, Neel described his father as a “little gray man” – quiet, passive and dominated by his wife.
Neel gravitated to his mother because “she was brilliant, she knew more and she was faster on the draw”. However, Alice Hartley Neel was also a Victorian – regimented, autocratic and with attitudes towards women that one would expect of an unenlightened man. “Alice did everything imaginable to be anything other than a woman,” George Neel said. “His habits were always basically disgusting. His fingernails were dirty. Alice disliked bathing and used to eat her bread on the side. She could never do anything like any normal person would.
As one nephew put it, Neel “decided already when he was little, ‘This house is unbearable. Therefore, I have to create a world of my own beyond.
After graduating from high school in 1918, Neel took the civil service exam and got a job as a records clerk in the Army Air Corps in Philadelphia. Over the next three years, she held a series of such jobs while taking evening art classes, first at the School of Industrial Art.
Neel rejected Impressionism for Ashcan Realism, a style best known for depicting everyday life. Many Ashcan artists saw themselves as colleagues of nosy journalists like Upton Sinclair who, around the same time, was drawing 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 a student, and Neel wanted to avoid the distraction of the men; it also emphasized expressionism and form, and she was interested in neither. After Neel paid the $100 annual tuition for his freshman year, his talent won a Delaware County Residents’ Scholarship that paid for his remaining three years. In her senior year, she won the award for best painting in her life class.
In 1924, at the PAFA summer school in Chester Springs, Neel met Carlos Enriquez de Gomez. The son of a wealthy Havana family that opposed his ideas of becoming an artist, Gomez had been sent north to attend business school, but had since returned. According to Hoban, he came across as “an exotic bohemian”. The rebel Neel was immediately drawn in.
By the time she graduated a year later, they had married. Soon the couple moved to Havana, living first with Gomez’s parents, then alone. They showed off their artwork, got into anti-establishment politics, and ran with a vanguard 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 worked 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 dark depiction of mothers and babies in a maternity ward 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 has moved back to her parents’ home in Colwyn, a place where it has never been easy to live. She escaped daily by taking the train to Philadelphia to paint.
“I had a terrible life,” she later recalled. “But I produced a 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 described Ethel as “almost paralyzed in self-awareness (sic) by her own exposure”.
Eventually Neel broke down – the effect, Hoban concluded, of losing Santillana, Carlos and Isabetta, plus perhaps the guilt of feeling freed from the family responsibilities of painting. “One of the reasons I had the breakdown, I never showed heartbreak,” she later said. “I just opened and everything let go. Then I had the classic Freudian hysteria. I died every day.
Neel was hospitalized. At her family’s request, Gomez visited, then left. Neel never saw him again, and his daughter rarely. Shortly after, she attempted suicide. Neel spent the following year in a private sanitarium 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, whom she had met through friends. However, the relationship deteriorated. Doolittle, an opium addict, disliked the time Neel spent painting, and so cut down 60 of her paintings and burned 300 more. She went on to have two sons from 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 until the early 1940s. There were some minor exhibitions, but his style and subjects were not not popular.
Neel painted people, mostly families and people from the neighborhood. She favors portraits of people who are suffering, but also certain still lifes and urban landscapes. His work reflects the political issues of the time. In 1936, she painted “Nazi Murder Jews,” which depicts 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. Finances there became so tight that, to feed his boys, Neel went on welfare and, on occasion, shoplifted. In the process, Neel found new inspiration: his 1950 work, “Black Spanish Family,” emphasizes – without idealization or condescension – the dignity of a mother and her two daughters who pose in their Sunday best.
Sitting down for Neel took patience.
“She expected you to sit still for hours, even when your arm was killing you,” recalls Ginny Neel, a stepdaughter. As she worked, Neel threw questions at her models, trying to force them to reveal their personalities, which she then conveyed onto the canvas in a bold black outline. If she thought a seated person’s attention was fading, Ginny added, “she’d wake you up with a loud meowing noise.”
Neel often used animals in his work, noted Kathryn Hughes, art critic for the London Telegraph. Animals offered new ways of painting form and color and sometimes had psychological significance. Her 1962 painting, “Carol With Dog,” pairs a woman dressed to show her “lush femininity” with a poodle whose head is cut off to produce a tall crown of curls. The painting “pokes fun at 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 many fashionable friends, including Andy Warhol, painting him shirtless, wearing a truss meant to protect abdominal muscles damaged in an assassination attempt two years earlier.
By the time she was 80, Neel was a star. She appeared on The show tonight and was the guest of honor at a dinner with New York Mayor Ed Koch. The Whitney Museum has mounted a major exhibition.
So, in the end, she won. Neel had painted what she wanted and how she pleased, and eventually the market obeyed.