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« That was then and this is now! | Main | Beyond Hope and Change - Prayer! »

June 14, 2010


I was quite blown away by Alice Neel's work. To elaborate more on what I said in the last sentence of the post, I am copying what I wrote on my Facebook in a conversation with Elatia Harris on this subject:

What came across to me in Neel's portraits of women is that perhaps she wasn't very happy with her own womanhood. She may have seen the usual quandaries of female existence (unequal sexual powers in a relationship, marriage, motherhood etc.) as an onerous burden. She seems to transfer that disappointment on to the women she painted. The despair, pain, insecurity and sometimes ruthlessness are quite prominent in their faces and body language. Her women are pretenders, sufferers or frightened. The men's portraits on the other hand, are a mixed bag. Some like the union leader Pat Whelan, the scarred Andy Warhol and her own son Hartley are extremely sympathetic depictions. There are a few male subjects who come across as jerks. But most look as if Neel "understood" their vulnerabilities and their "defects" are expressed honestly without cruelty.

I didn't quite read it that way. Not all the mothers look anxious, though the one you have in the blog post does: Carmen and Judy look normal to me, frozen in a moment of time, as does the other where the daughter's face mirrors the expression of the mother (I forget the name).
I think I agree with Norman's take on Neel's depiction of the breasts (female or male). They are 'working' breasts, not artistic or artful arrangements in the usual sense.

From what I've been told, Carmen was a cleaning woman that came to help Alice Neel once in a while. Judy, her daughter, was born with severe health problems and died shortly after. Most of her best portraits were of working class people from her neighborhood, whom she was very sympathetic to and, to a certain point, identified with.

The MFAH exhibit had clustered Neel's "Mother & Child" paintings on one wall - with unbelievably attractive and haunting results, the Carmen one being the most eye-catching. Indeed, Carmen was Neel's cleaning woman and the baby died soon after birth. The painting shows the sick and extremely weak infant unable to nurse at her mother's breasts.

If I were offered a gift of a few of Neel's paintings from this exhibition, I probably would have picked some from the "maternal" wall. The canvases are striking, poignant and slightly nervous-making.

Ruchira, you might want to check out the book 'Alice Neel: Women' by Alice Carr. There are sections of 'mother and child' and of pregnant women pictures. My instructor's wife appears in both. Very interesting.

That sounds like a great exhibit. I love Alice Neel. Recently for work I was in the offices of the Commission of Fine Arts here in DC. In their lobby they have portraits of past chairmen on the walls. Although the portraits are all pretty good they are also pretty conventional. But one lucky chairman got his portrait painted by Neel and it definitely stands out.

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