Women’s History Month at Moore: Alice Neel

A celebration of the women of Moore would be incomplete without mention of one of our most famous graduates, Alice Neel.

Alice Neel, ca. 1970s

Alice Neel, ca. 1970s

Neel grew up just outside of Philadelphia in Colwyn, PA, and was drawn to art at an early age. Although plagued by insecurity, Neel found refuge in artistic expression because it allowed her to really be herself.  After graduating from Darby High School in 1919, Neel initially pursued a conventional path, working in various civil service jobs and earning a modest living. She quickly realized, however, that art was an essential part of her life, and in 1921 she was admitted to the Philadelphia School of Design for Women.

Neel chose PSDW over other institutions for a number of reasons. As a women’s school, Neel felt she would be less distracted by men and could therefore concentrate on her studies. She also felt that a less structured curriculum would give her more freedom to pursue her own interests. Finally, she chose PSDW as a way of rejecting Impressionism, a dominant art form at the time which was popular at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Neel preferred the style of Robert Henri, who was a former instructor at PSDW who emphasized realism in his art. “Paint what you feel. Paint what you see. Paint what is real to you,” Henri exhorted. The importance of capturing the truth of a subject rather than portraying its beauty would greatly influence Neel’s work as she matured as an artist.

Based on her accounts, Neel’s time at PSDW was mixed. Harriet Sartain had recently taken over as principal of the school, and Neel was often at odds with Sartain’s “conventional” administration. She seems rather to have preferred aspects of the school put into place by Harriet’s predecessor, Emily Sartain, such as drawing from life. Generally, Neel found herself evolving beyond what the traditional art curriculum at PSDW could offer, but she remained dedicated to her artistic pursuits and her hard work was recognized through numerous awards and scholarships.

After Neel graduated from PSDW in 1925, she married Cuban artist Carlos Enríquez. Living briefly in Havana, Cuba, they launched their art careers and started a family. They returned to the United States in 1927, but the road to becoming a professional artist for Neel would prove to be long and trying. In the midst of seeking steady financial support for her art, Neel would suffer personal tragedy and instability, gradually becoming estranged from her husband in the 1930s. She worked for the Public Works of Art Project and later the Works Progress Administration, but she would not be met with major critical success until the 1960s.

Richard Gibbs, 1968

Richard Gibbs, 1968

Neel is most famous for her expressively colorful, emotionally intense portrait paintings, often of fellow artists and intellectuals she met while living in New York City. Increased momentum in the Women’s Rights Movement combined with new trends in Pop Art helped to elevate Neel’s work in the art world. Moore featured her work in a solo exhibition in January, 1971 and awarded her an honorary doctorate in June of the same year. In 1974, her work was given a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney, and she was recognized by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 with a National Women’s Caucus for Art award. She painted portraits of Andy Warhol, Red Grooms and Mimi Gross, and New York Mayor Edward Koch. At the time of her death in 1984, Neel was a celebrated artist. She is still regarded today as an important painter, not only for women but for an entire generation of American painters.

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Seated female nude, 1966, on display in Connelly Library

The library maintains a file on Alice Neel in its archives, and we welcome any researchers interested in following the progress of her career and her legacy at Moore. You can also check out one of the following resources about Neel for more information. Neel’s print, Seated female nude (1966), is on display in the library.

For further information:

Alice Neel. Edited by Ann Temkin. New York : Harry N. Abrams in association with Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2000.

Belcher, Gerald L. and Margaret L. Belcher. Collecting souls, gathering dust : the struggles of two American artists, Alice Neel and Rhoda Medary. New York : Paragon House, 1991.

Hills, Patricia. Alice Neel. New York : H.N. Abrams, 1983.

Hoban, Phoebe. Alice Neel: the art of not sitting pretty. New York : St. Martin’s Press, 2010.

Munro, Eleanor. Originals: American women artists. New York : Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Portrait of Alice Neel. Directed by Michel Auder. New York : Michel Auder Videos, 2000. VHS.

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