Alice Neel's Feminist and Leftist Portraits of Women

by Denise Bauer
Alice Neel's Feminist and Leftist Portraits of Women
Denise Bauer
Feminist Studies
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Alice NeeI's Feminist and Leftist Portraits ofWomen

Denise Bauer
I don't give a damn. I was women's lib before there was women's lib. -Alice Neel

Alice Neel appeared to burst on the scene in the 1970Swith her riveting portraits of public figures like a bare-chested and bandaged Andy Warhol after he had been shot by Valerie Solanis (1970), a towering portrait of a roundly-breasted Bella Abzug (1975), and later, New York City's then-mayor Ed Koch (1981). Despite being a regular in New York City's art world in the 1930S,it wasn't until the 1970Sthat Neel began to gain mainstream visibility when her colorful life's story, ebullient personality, and passion about showing her work began to attract the media's attention. Bythis point she was in her seventies, and her grandmotherly but ribald persona and outlandish portraits had become the subject of frequent feature stories in mainstream newspapers and magazines including Newsweek and People. Her irreverent sense of humor even helped land her two guest appearances on the Johnny Carson Show.

Critics and scholars lamented this inordinant focus on Neel's personality and life story to the exclusion of sustained attention to the quality of her work and the importance of her contributions to twentieth-century art, a charge that has lessened in recent years as recognition of her work has grown.' In addition to her visibility in 1970s' mainstream culture, Neel was quite successful professionally during this time, exhibiting widely in galleries and small museums around the country and lecturing tirelessly at college campuses. Among other awards and honors, in 1976 Neel was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1979 she was invited to the White House by President Jimmy Carter to receive the National Women's Caucus for Art Award.

Although the increased attention paid to Neel and her work in the 1970S is attributed commonly to the rise of Second Wave feminism, an

Feminist Studies 28, no. 2 (summer 2002). © 2002 by Feminist Studies, Inc. 375

Marxist Girl (Irene Peslikis), 1972. Oil on canvas. © Alice Neel. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

association made explicit through Neel's outspoken activism in support of women's rights, in fact Neel had an ambivalent and rather complex relationship to feminism that is evident in her portraits of leftist women artists, intellectuals, and writers and in the other portraits of women she painted and drew from the 1930Sto the 1980s.

Neel portrayed some of the most interesting and compelling women from U.S. twentieth-century history-such as the Black playwright Alice Childress, the Communist leader Mother Bloor, the avant-garde cellist Charlotte Moorman, and the feminist writer Adrienne Rich. In some of her portraits of ordinary women (whom she met on the street or who were her neighbors and friends), Neel explored such chronic female hardships as domestic violence, child abuse, and poverty. She created many of these works long before Second Wave feminism drew attention to these issues. She also frequently explored race and class differences between women and was consistently critical of white privilege, often through the use of parody and humor, in ways that contemporary feminists have only recently begun to explore.

Neel's portraits of feminist and leftist women have seldom been reproduced or discussed critically. Instead, scholarship on Neel has disproportionately focused on her portraits of leftist male intellectuals, artists, and writers such as the poets Allen Ginsburg, Kenneth Fearing, Frank O'Hara, and Joe Gould, whom she memorably painted with three penises. In 1998, the Cheim and Read Gallery in New York City organized an exhibit, "Alice Neel: Men in Suits," that looked exclusively at Neel's portraits of men. Similarly, in the retrospective catalogue Alice Neel, a chapter, "Gentlemen Callers: Alice Neel and the Art World," by Richard Flood focuses on Neel's male sitters."

The Philadelphia Museum of Art organized a major retrospective of Neel's work that opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in June 2000, sixteen years after her death, and traveled to several major cities in the United States.' Despite the great promise of a full showing of her work, once again only a handful of Neel's portraits of leftist women were included, and there was little feminist critique of Neel's work in the accompanying catalogue.' Instead, Neel's radical politics were muted and the placement of her work in the canons of Western art history was highlighted.

Bylooking closely at Neel's portraits of women as a category of their own, we can uncover this neglected legacy of her work and gain a more complex understanding of Neel's politics and relationship to feminism, perspectives that have been largely absent from the recent critical response to her work.

Focusing on 'Women Although Neel was a traditional easel painter working in conventional genres, she also transgressed these conventions with her own subjective

Alice Neel , Bella Abzug, 1975. Oil on canvas. © Alice Neel, Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

Alice Neel, The Cafeteria, 1938. Oil on canvas. © Alice Neel, Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

Alice Neel, June, 1952.0il on canvas. © Alice Neel. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

Alice Neel, Ethel Ashton , 1930. Oil on canvas. © Alice Neel. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

Alice Neel, Alice Childress, 1951.Oiloncanvas. ©AliceNeel. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

Alice Neel, Death ofMother Bloor, ca. 1958. Oil on canvas. © Alice Neel, Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

Alice Neel, Susan Rossen, 1976. Oil on canvas. © Alice Neel. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York.


Alice Neel, Annie Sprinkle, 1982. Oil on canvas. © Alice Neel. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

vision. In representations of women, she penetrated social artifice and dignified her subjects through a courageous, brutally honest approach to rendering an individual character. In particular, her portraits of women revealed aspects of women's lives and experiences obscured in Western art history, which represented women primarily as muses, Madonnas, and idealized nudes.

Neel's portraits were a radical departure from the flattering commissioned works of Old World Masters. For example, her nude self portrait, done at the age of eighty, contrasts quite dramatically with the small, dark portraits of distinguished (mostly) men's heads that fill the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., which owns the work. Never resorting to cliche, Neel's images of women instead reveal the often unseen constellation of feelings and issues that have historically colored women's lives. More specifically, her portraits of women-a crouching, self-conscious young woman, a bold nude girl, a "degenerate Madonna" (as she titled one of her works), and pregnant nudes-flew in the face of conventional notions of how the feminine was to be represented through most of the twentieth century.

Much of Neel's work is unmistakably autobiographical. According to feminist art critic Ann Sutherland Harris, Neel's oeuvre stands as a "kind of diary" to the people, events, and experiences of her life." She was born in Merion Square, a suburb of Philadelphia, in 1900 to a middle-class family. Her father, who Neel described as a "very refined ... wonderful, kind man," was the head of the per diem department of the Pennsylvania Railroad." He came from a family of opera singers. Neel's mother, Alice Concross Hartley, a descendent of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was an intelligent, well-read, and strong-minded homemaker who took Neel regularly to concerts and the theater. A highly sensitive child, the fourth of five children (one of whom died), Neel remembered feeling completely bored with small-town life but credited her mother with being the only one who"stimulated (her) mind."7

From an early age Neel reported a heightened awareness of class distinctions and a disdain for bourgeois conventions. As a young adult she enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, but rejected the impressionist style in favor there, stating, "I never saw life as a picnic on the grass. "8 Instead, she was influenced by the Ashcan School of realism through one of its main proponents, Robert Henri, who had taught at the Philadelphia School of Design. The Ashcan School made urban poverty its subject and asserted the importance of using feeling in art. Neel remembered how "on the way to school I would pass old gray haired women who had been scrubbing office floors all night and would ... feel guilty to be drawing classic statues."9 Her social conscience developed further in the leftist climate of Greenwich Village, where she moved in 1927 and where she was thought to have briefly joined the Communist Party." Although she said she was "never a good Communist" because she "hate[d] bureaucracy," she remained committed to its ideals and loyal to its members, many of whom she painted through the McCarthy era and up until her death.11

A true bohemian, she deliberately chose a lifestyle free of convention. For most of her life she struggled as an artist and single mother, a white woman who lived from 1938 to 1962 alone with her children in the New York City neighborhood that was then called Spanish Harlem and today is known as EI Barrio. As a young woman she married a Cuban art student, Carlos Enriquez, who came from an aristocratic and wealthy family. They had two children; one died in infancy, and the other was raised by Neel's in-laws. She had several stormy relationships with often-troubled men, including one who slashed scores of her paintings. She had two more children, Richard and Hartley, and later in life became a devoted, although eccentric, mother and grandmother.

Because of her unconventional lifestyle, precarious class status, and political sensibilities, she was sensitive to the pretenses of social class, the ethnocentrism of the controlling white culture, and dominant ideologies around mothering, family, and femininity that shifted and changed over her lifetime. Her portraits of women, by virtue of their range of class, race, ethnicity, and historical moment, demonstrate quite well the shifting and multiple meanings of the construct "woman" during much of the twentieth century.

Neel's art enjoyed some recognition from the 1930S to the early 1940S while she was enrolled in the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and the Works Project Administration (WPA)/Federal Art Project. During this period, her work was mostly social realist in style; she painted Depression-era street scenes and Communist radicals and intellectuals like Mother Bloor, the poet Kenneth Fearing, and the union organizer Pat Whalen. When these federally-sponsored programs ended, Neel continued painting in relative obscurity. When abstract expressionism became the dominant style in the 1940S and 1950S, Neellived in Spanish Harlem, and her subjects were mostly her Latino and African American neighbors and her own growing children.

Occasionally, Neel painted women she encountered on the street or in the parks of New York City. This was particularly true during the 1930S when she often painted urban street scenes. One example, Womanfrom Bleecker Street (1933), was a study for a larger social realist work, Investigation of Poverty at the Russell Sage Foundation (1933), she did while working for the WPA. Such "investigations" eventually led to the development of welfare and social security, although her sympathetic treatment of the poor woman in this portrait contrasts with the cool detachment of its "investigators.?" This small drawing of a slumped, faceless woman with her head in her hands is a sensitively wrought example of the desperation many women faced during the Depression. In contrast with the common Depression-era image of unemployed men on bread lines, this makes visible the private despair that many women, especially mothers burdened with the care of children, also endured.13 Neel frequently depicted class distinctions and the inhumanity of a society of "haves" and "have nots" in her portraits, which revealed the intersecting influences of class, ethnicity, and age on women's identity and place in society.

Neel was especially influenced, she said, by her experiences as a young woman in Cuba: "Cuban women often dance with each other. They just don't have to hang around a man's neck the way American women do. They have more self than American women. . . . The American woman was weak compared with the womanliness of the Cuban woman.'H4 Thus, she admired what she saw as strong, independent women who did not identify with passive, helpless gender stereotypes and liked to paint women who resisted such social norms-whether women activists, such as political radicals and artists like Mother Bloor, Alice Childress, Irene Pesilikis (the subject of her portrait entitled, Marxist Girl), or women who, by virtue of their race, class, or ethnicity, fell outside the status quo.

Neel's exploration of these issues is evident in one little known portrait of three women in a restaurant, The Cafeteria (1938). In the center foreground is a woman of color wearing a brown fur coat and dark hat. Bony hands clutch her handbag and a worried, aged face gazes directly at the viewer. Beside her is a profiled view of a young, shapely white woman. Her face is made-up and a feathered hat sits on her strawberry blond hair. In the background is the figure of a plain-faced white woman wiping up tables. In a public setting, Neel displays and critiques how different identities form women's appearances, demeanors, and stations in life. Significantly, the most socially marginalized person-the aging black woman-is foregrounded, while the most socially privileged onethe young white woman-is profiled on the side. The ordinary, white, working-class woman, remains in the background, almost unnoticed.

Neel frequently painted women like these together in public. These scenes, however, markedly contrast the sheltered, domestic scenes of women together drinking tea, reading books, or attending to children as interpreted by nineteenth-century women artists like Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot. Lacking what feminist art historian Griselda Pollock called "spaces of femininity," Neel's images of women were often captured in public. And, unlike Cassatt's and Morisot's depictions of private life within their own social class, Neel's images of women together critique and lay bare differences of race, class, and age. Neel's earlier rejection of impressionism in art school reappears in her disavowal of many of its bourgeois conventions.

Using the Male Gaze Strategically At the same time Neel focused on her sitter's individuality, she also underscored the ways women are victimized in a sexist society. Byfocusing the male gaze in a strategic way, Neel expressed the myriad reactions and feelings experienced by women who are without personal or political power. Her female subjects reflect the fear, apprehension, and selfconsciousness of the objectifying male gaze and illustrate the effects of tabooed social problems such as emotional abuse and domestic violence.

One such portrait is Peggy (1949), which depicts a woman with a blackened eye and bruised face. Her bent arms are raised up around her, as if to fend off an attack. Neel exaggerates the attenuation of Peggy's thin arms in an unusual rectangularly shaped canvas. The wild gesture of the arms in this head-and-shoulder's portrait emphasizes her badly battered face and down-turned mouth. Peggy was Neel's neighbor and the victim of domestic violence. Alice frequently told the story that Peggy was found dead in her bed one morning after taking an overdose of sleeping pills; her drunken husband had slept beside her all night without realizing she had died.15

Although Peggy is an overt example of sexist abuse, there are other, more subtle ways Neel captured the internalized injuries women have sustained. For example, June (1952) is a portrait of a woman with her legs tucked under her, seated on a bed against a wall. She sits as if on edge, her body uncomfortably folded. One hand is clenched, the other is unnaturally turned upward and passively lying on her lap. Her eyes are rounded and fearful, expressing a heightened self-consciousness of the implicit male gaze. Even more dramatic, an earlier work, Ethel Ashton (1930), is a riveting portrayalof a painfully self-consciousness, nude woman captured from a heightened perspective that accentuates her vulnerability. Ethel's oversized eyes look fearfully up at the viewer; the elevated perspective otherwise obscures her face. Neel depicts Ethel crouching with pendulous breasts, a rolling midsection, and exaggeratedly thick thighs. Her pose-crouching with her left leg unnaturally straight-speaks to the awkwardness and self-consciousness that women often feel about their bodies. Neel, herself, described this portrait of her art school friend as if "she's almost apologizing for living.'!" Through the use of body language in both June and Ethel Ashton, Neel represents women through the male gaze and, significantly, also represents the internalized injuries the judging male gaze imposes on women.

Painting Differences Outside of her neighborhood and family, Neel's choice of sitters almost always reflected her own political and social concerns; overwhelmingly, her sitters were avant-garde and left-wing subjects. It wasn't until World War II, however, that Neel began to paint women artists or activists." Neel was ahead of her time, picking up currents in the culture's direction and presciently recording late-twentieth-century u.S. women intellectu als, writers, artists, and activists.

For example, although it is undated, nameless, and seldom shown, the pastel, Woman Playing Cello, done in the 1950S is a portrait of the avant-garde cellist, Charlotte Moorman." Moorman later became famous for her 1967 performance of Nam June Paik's Opera Sextronique, which she performed in the nude (as the score described) and for which she was quite notoriously arrested." Unlike the more somber, erect, and composed portrayals of male Latino musicians that Neel painted in the 1930S, such as Jose with Guitar (1935), Latin American Musicians (1939), and The Guitar Player (1936), Neel captured Moorman as a passionate artist engrossed in her music. Moorman cradles the cello in her arms, her head bowed and eyes closed. Neel evokes Moorman's intensity through the full sensuality of pastels-saturated reds, purples, and browns-and loosely flowing lines that artfully elicit the music Moorman is shown creating. This expressionist depiction of Moorman suggests that she is something other than an ordinary classical musician, long before she was widely recognized as such.

Also in the 1950S, Neel painted the Black playwright, novelist, and actress, Alice Childress (1951), whose work addressed disparities between the rich and the poor and the burdens of racism and sexism for poor women of color. Childress later won many prestigious awards, was applauded by Adrienne Rich," and became an important role model and supporter of early radical feminists during the women's movemerit." At the time of this portrait, however, she had just debuted what went on to become one of her best-known plays, Florence, a semi-autobiographical drama about a Black mother who struggles to support her daughter in spite of the world's indifference to her plight. In this formally completed oil-on-canvas portrait, Childress is clearly depicted as a woman of the theater, captured in a profiled gaze and clad in a strapless gown, wearing a large, conspicuous medallion and with a bouquet of flowers behind her. Her face is perfectly composed and her hands folded and relaxed in her lap. Neellends Childress a majestic bearing, perhaps to dignify the artist and her work, which Neel herself undoubtedly admired. But also, as was Neel's tendency, she was probably making an ironic point of contrasting Childress's air of regality with the subject of her work, the poor and downtrodden.

In the same year as the Childress portrait, Neel painted Mercedes Arroya (1950), the portrait of a Latina community activist from Spanish Harlem. Captured with an upward gaze but a relaxed hand resting on the chair, Arroya seems to be both a seeker of a better world and a down-toearth realist. In a highly unusual portrait, The Death ofMother Bloor (ca. 1958), Neel painted Ella Reeve "Mother" Bloor, one of the only women leaders in the Communist Party, as she lay in her coffin during her funeral. Significantly, a line of mourners of different races and ethnicities, including a mother with an infant in her arms, is pictured as they pass before the foregrounded image of the dead woman. This diverse collection of people embodies the inclusive world that Bloor fought to create.

However, in an ironic and bitter way, Neel uses Bloor's death to signal the death of such a vision. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee had begun prosecuting suspected Communists in the U.S. government and Hollywood. For Communist sympathizers like Neel, the beginning of the McCarthy Era extinguished any hope for imminent social change. Four years earlier, in a closer, more intimate view and without mourners, Neel had also painted from memory a portrait of her father in his coffin, Dead Father (1946). There is a custom of painting portraits of the dead in Latin cultures, which Neel no doubt encountered. What is striking, however, is that this portrait is commonly reproduced and discussed, whereas the one of Mother Bloor, which is so politically and historically interesting and complex, has virtually been ignored.

In the early 1960s, Neel's work began to regain visibility as figurative work returned to fashion and leftist politics returned to favor. By the 1970S, when the women's movement and a feminist art movement were in full swing, Neel joined other women artists of her generation, like Louise Nevelson and Louise Bourgeois, in being touted as role models. Not only was the social and political environment receptive to Neel and her art, but her personal life had also become freer with both sons grown and in college.

Feminists embraced Neel in the 1970S as a role model who had weathered decades of sexism and obscurity and had continued painting. She was an active and enthusiastic supporter of feminist causes, particularly women artists' causes. She was a tireless, outspoken, and often inspirational advocate for women's rights, traveling extensively to colleges and speaking on panels through the 1970S. Feminist art critic Patricia Mainardi wrote that "In the 1970S, [Neel] hits her stride and produces a long series of brilliant paintings.'?" In 1970, she was commissioned to paint a portrait of Kate Millet for a Time magazine cover. Nancy Azara, co-founder of the Feminist Art Institute in New York City, remembered Neel as always available to support feminist art education programs." In turn, when women artists organized to protest their invisibility in New York City's museums, they also drew up a petition to protest Neel's exclusion from every Whitney Painting Annual in her then fifty years of painting. Neel was finally awarded a small retrospective at the Whitney in 1974. Although the 2000 Whitney retrospective was much more significant in size and scope, art critic Roberta Smith complained that it wasn't big enough, lamenting "Neel should not be a one-floor artist. "24

Nonetheless, Neel's relationship to feminism was not without its complications. Just as she believed in the ideals of communism but wasn't a good party member, she had ambivalent feelings about the women's movement. For example, she described not being interested in the white, middle-class perspective espoused by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. She said, "I couldn't identify with a housewife from Queens. I didn't have her aids-her washing machine, her security."25 And, rather than seeing men as the source of women's oppression, Neel was more likely to see the capitalist state as the oppressor of all people. As she put it, "They think I'm a big women's libber. I am, but I stop short of them. I don't want to stress it every minute. There's more to life thanjust women...."26

Neel's radical politics included more rights and respect for women, but not as a single, isolated goal. For example, she scoffed at the idea of a feminine sensibility in art, asserting that the real issue was not whether women painted differently from men but how unbalanced power relations between the sexes rendered women and their art inferior. Similarly, she disapproved of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party for its valorization of female genitalia. She explained, "For practical purposes the aim of women should be to break the insulting and limiting life to which they have been and are subjected. In a culture where the ethos is 'dog eat dog' perhaps the whole philosophy of life would have to be changed."27 Focusing on the representation of women's genitalia was irrelevant to this larger aim. Another source of her ambivalence about the women's movement was that she had already lived a lifetime of gender-based struggles that were newly discovered for young feminist activists. In her 1971 address to her alma mater when she was awarded an honorary doctorate, she said: "The women's lib movement is giving women the right to openly practice what I had to do in an underground way.''"

Neel's decidedly anti-essentialist understanding of women's lives and experiences-demonstrated in the diversity of sitters and treatments in her portraits of women-is congruent with contemporary feminists' efforts to explore and valorize differences among women. However, Neel's motivation in her portraits of women was not necessarily to champion women, as was the case for many feminist artists such as Judy Chicago. Rather, it was part of her larger effort to give expression to a common humanity that included diverse women.

A Self-Styled Iconoclast
Although Neel was clearly conversant in and responsive to traditions of art history, she can perhaps best be understood as an iconoclast. Overall, she took a decidedly oppositional stance to the traditional canon of art history and the cultural traditions that had shaped her. Refusing appellations such as "woman artist" and "portrait painter," she preferred to describe herself on her own terms: "I never followed any school. I never imitated any artist. I never did any of that. I believe what I am is a humanist. That's the way I see the world, and that is what I paint. And I have to be myself."29

In the 1970S, Neel painted the new generation of leftist women activists and artists who were leading the women's movement. Marxist Girl (Irene Peslikis) (1972) featured a radical feminist artist and activist who founded one of the first feminist art journals, Women and Art (1971-72). Its inaugural issue featured two pieces on Neel, which were among the first feminist recognitions of Neel and her work. Peslikis played an active and influential part in the early women's liberation movement and was a major proponent of consciousness-raising." Like other radical women of her time, Peslikis represented a stark contrast to the well-groomed, made-up conventional woman of this period. Rather than wearing a dress, stockings, and a carefully arranged hairdo, Peslikis is without make-up, her hair is tousled, and she is clad in jeans and a tank top, donning the "women's liberationist" look of the period. In a full view, Neel dramatizes her "unladylike" pose; she has one arm up over her head, perhaps to highlight her unshaven armpit, and one leg casually draped over the arm of the chair. Her aggressively undemure pose and unsmiling face casts Peslikis as a serious-minded radical. This point was furthered by the title Neel gave her portrait, Marxist Girl, naming Peslikis for her politics.

Similarly, Neel drew Adrienne Rich (1973), radical lesbian feminist activist, poet, and author of many significant feminist texts. Rich's pose is less strident than is Peslikis's, but like hers, it conveys the determinedly relaxed posture of pants-wearing, braless feminists who were newly inspired to throw off the mantles of traditional heterosexual femininity.

Gender distinctions began to blur in the face of feminist critiques of traditional sex roles during the 1970s. In two portraits done in the late 1970S, Susan Rossen (1976) and Mary D. Garrard (1977),31Neel evokes the androgynous style and attitude that came into fashion during the women's movement. Both women are dressed in blouses, overcoats, and hats in striking contrast to the fleshy poses, demure dresses, and pleasing smiles of Neel's portraits of middle-class white women from the prefeminist 1960s, such as the carefully groomed Kristin Walker (1964)·

The feminist art movement that emerged alongside the women's movement in the 1970S sought to valorize the contributions of women artists. Neel painted many other women from the New York City art world who participated in this movement, including feminist art historians such as Cindy Nemser and Linda Nochlin, who sat with her young daughter, and artists such as Marisol, Sari Dienes, and Louise Lieber. She also painted African American artist and activist Faith Ringgold (1976) in a vivid red, patterned African dress, roundly filling a bluestriped chair. Ringgold's African garb was in keeping with the values of Black nationalism of the time. As an activist in the women-artists-led protests of the early 1970s, Ringgold commended Neel as "an artist ... [who]...was alsotaking the time to livealifethatrelatedto change."31

One of Neel's last portraits was of porn star/performance artist Annie Sprinkle, done in 1982 when Sprinkle was, as she described herself, still "in the mainstream sex industry-a professional call girl, a porn star and

a sexual-rights activist.'?' In recent years, Sprinkle has reinvented herself and become a "post-porn modernist" and performance artist, influenced by Alice Neel, whom she credits with bringing "the lowbrow into the highbrow.'?' In Neel's portrait, Sprinkle kneels on one knee in full costume, including fishnet stockings, black pumps, a black leather body suit with cut outs for her breasts, and a pierced labia (made visible by her odd pose). With feathers in her well-coifed strawberry blond hair, Sprinkle seems indifferent to the highly charged eroticism her pose and get-up suggest. This portrait, done in her eighties, was one of Neel's last; until her death in 1984, she continued to seize on the most contemporary issues, in this case the increasing feminist recognition and validation of sex work.

One of the most obvious ways that Neel "was herself' was her highly unconventional interpretation of portraiture. Art historian Pamela Allara describes Neel's approach as adapting psychological portraiture from Degas to van Gogh to include the social and political aspects of a subject's identity and place in society." As Neel herself often stated, it was her aim to record both the individual and the zeitgeist in her portraits.

Only rarely painting for commission, Neel deliberately selected sitters who interested her, capturing their character through their gestures, facial expressions, and especially their body language. Her penetrating vision often exposed the sitters' underlying anxieties and aspects of their identities that were otherwise obscured by surface finery like their clothing or social standing. While at times this resulted in less than flattering portrayals, Neel insisted that it was not her intent to "take any virtue away from my subjects. I just show them scarred by life as we all are. "36

Neel identified closely with her subjects, explaining: "In the process I become the person for a couple of hours, so when they leave and I'm finished, I feel disoriented."37 This process contributed a characteristic intensity to all her portraits. Her tendency to exaggerate an individual's physiognomy-the face, head, hands, breasts, or arms-helped to expose each sitter's character, sometimes in a caricature-like way. Most often, there is little spatial depth in a Neel portrait: the subject is thrust forward in the picture plane and often there is little depicted other than the sitter and her chair. Generally there are no cast shadows either, so the subject seems pinned like a specimen under an unblinking fluorescent light. Her portraits are acute psychological analyses of her sitters' makeup that Mainardi applauded for their "almost scientific observation of gestures and poses, of 'body language' and its role in communicating states of mind and feeling. . . ."38

Neel contributes to the legacy of other women artists-such as Suzanne Valadon and Kathe Kollwitz-who have similarly transgressed, and therefore transformed, canonical codes for representing women. Starting from

her social realist portraits of the 19308 in which she explored women, poverty, and oppression to the increasingly autonomous, revolutionary women she painted from Mother Bloor to Alice Childress and feminist activists and artists from the 1970S and early 1980s, Neel's portraits of women chronicle twentieth-century u.s. feminist history.

BylookingatNeel'sportraitsoffeminist andleftistwomen, wegaina more nuanced understanding of Neel's relationship to feminism and, in particular, to 1970S feminist politics. The standard recovery story-that Neel was swept into visibility by the women's liberation movement has overlooked these earlier portraits and her continuing radical critique of the u.s. twentieth century and its art.


Two significant texts are Pamela Allara's Pictures of People: Alice Neel's American Portrait Gallery (Hanover, N.H.: Brandeis University Press, 1998) and the retrospective catalogue, Alice Neel, edited by Ann Temkin (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2000). AHara's text is the most comprehensive scholarly treatment of Neel and her work to date, situating Neel's work in social realism and avant-garde modernism and discussing her portraits of leftist and feminist women, including her series of pregnant nudes, which Allara also addressed in an earlier article, "Mater of Fact: Alice Neel's Pregnant Nudes," American Art (spring 1994): 6-31. Similarly, the essays in the catalogue of Neel's retrospective place Neel's work within the portraiture genre and other traditions within Western art history. Patricia Hills's monograph, Alice Neel (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983; rpt. 1995) is an important record of Neel in her own words, and includes an essay by Hills.

Some noteworthy feminist writings on Neel not referenced in this essay are Linda Nochlin, "Some Women Realists," Arts Magazine 48 (April-May 1974):29-33, and reproduced in Women, Art, and Power (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 86-108; May Stevens, "The Non-Portraits of Alice Neel," Women's Studies 6 (1978): 61-73; and art reviews of Neel's New York City exhibits by Elizabeth Hess, art critic for the Village Voice.

This retrospective commemorated the centennial of Neel's birth. The exhibit generated a largely positive response from critics and museum-goers alike and featured Neel's best-known works, such as TB Harlem (1940), and the nude self portrait she did at the age of eighty, Self-Portrait (1980).

Ann Temkin, "AliceNeel: Self and Others," 13-32, in Alice Neel examines Neel's life as a "woman artist" and includes an interesting discussion of Neel's use of her "self' in her work, but it does not delve deeply into the radical implications of Neel's approach.

Ann Sutherland Harris, "AliceNeel Drawings and Watercolors, 1926-1978,"in Alice Neel: A Retrospective Exhibition of Watercolors and Drawings (New York: Graham Gallery, 1978).

Hills, 12.


Ibid., 13.

AliceNeel, "ByAliceNeel," Daily World, 17Apr. 1971, M7.

Interviews, phone, and email discussions with Neel Arts Inc. (Nancy Neel, Ginny Neel, Richard Neel, and Hartley Neel), July 1997-present.

Hills, 60.

Ibid., 57.

The year before Neel painted this work, the journalist Meridel Lesueur published "Women on the Breadline," in New Masses (January 1932), chronicling the forgotten women victims of the Depression.

Hills, 20.

Neel Arts Inc.

Hills, 30. 17· Allara, 74.

Neel Arts Inc.

Walter Robinson and Anastasia Wilkes, "Obituaries," Art World (January 1992):


Adrienne Rich notes Childress in her Of Women Born: Motherhood as Institution and Experience (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976). See Allara, 113, 288.

Carol Hanisch, a founding member of New York Radical Women, remembers another founding member, Kathie (Amatniek) Sarachild, meeting with and being influenced by Alice Childress during the early years of the women's liberation movement. Sarachild played an important role in developing consciousness-raising as a means of organizing and articulating women's experiences (interview with author, 4 May 1999).

Patricia Mainardi, "AliceNeel at the Whitney Museum," Art in America (May-June 1974): 107-8.

Nancy Azara, interview with author.j; May 1995.

Roberta Smith, "How Alice Neel Used Talk in Service to Her Painting," New York Times, 30 June 2000, E35.

Cindy Nemser, Art Talk: Conversations with Twelve Women Artists (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975),134.

Alexander Russo, Profiles on Women Artists (Frederick, Md.: University Publications, 1985), 206.

Neel, "AliceNeel," Women andArt (summer 1972): 17.

Hills, 134.

Eleanor Munro, Originals: American Women Artists (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), 128.

Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 383.

Mary Garrard wrote groundbreaking works in feminist art history and Susan Rossen was a museum specialist.

Edith Newhall, "Neel Life Stories," New York, 19June 2000, 43.

Ibid., 42.


Allara, 14.

Patricia Burstein, "Painter Alice Neel Strips Her Subjects to the Bone-and Some Then Rage in Their Nakedness," People, 19 Mar. 1979,63.

Judith Higgins, "AliceNeel and the Human Comedy,"ARTnews, October 1984, 78.

Mainardi, 108.

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