Alice Neel – The Spanish Family (1943)

“Every person is a new universe unique with its own laws emphasizing some belief or phase of life immersed in time and rapidly passing by,” American artist Alice Neel said in her autobiography. Looking at her career spanning over six decades and consisting of hundreds of portraits of people from all walks of life – all unique in their own way – her statement couldn’t ring more true.

It would be easy to get sidetracked by Neel’s eventful and tragic life, as she dealt with depression, sexism, extreme poverty, fraught relationships and got swept up in the intellectual circles of the 20th century. But that would mean to disregard her art, and add more injury to the wound of anonymity that kept her unrecognized for much of her life.

Much of Neel’s initial lack of success was due to the genre she preferred – portraiture – which was highly disregarded in the second half of the 20th century, due to photography and the advent of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Her artworks were, however, somewhat of a paradox. On the one hand, they were clearly anachronistic and perceived as outdated, drawing inspiration from 19th century realism. On the other hand, her portraits were what we would today call highly progressive, insofar as they were diverse in their subject matter and highlighted the humanity in individuals across all aisles of society, irrespective of their social class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or political affiliation.

The places she lived in gave Neel all the inspiration she needed. Through her art she recorded the presence of the people who entered her life, even if only for a brief moment of time. She was, in this sense, a visual historian, capturing the essence of individuals who would have otherwise been forgotten or conflated in vast, faceless masses.

After living for a few years in Greenwich Village, New York – famous at the time for its intellectualism, left-wing political ideology, beat poetry and gay liberation – Neel moved to East Harlem in 1938. The neighborhood is also known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio, for its large Latino community. Pregnant at the time with the son of her lover, Puerto Rican nightclub singer and guitarist José Santiago Negrón, the move was due, in part, to the desire to be closer to her boyfriend’s relatives.

Alice Neel - Puerto Rican Mother and Child (Margarita and Carlitos) 1938
Alice Neel – Puerto Rican Mother and Child (Margarita and Carlitos), 1938, oil on canvas

As their relationship fell apart and she struggled with the demands of motherhood on her own, Neel found herself magnetically drawn to the matriarchal families that surrounded her. She didn’t need to look too far. Margarita, the wife of José’s brother, Carlos Negrón, turned out to be her inspiration for two iconic artworks.

The first painting, Puerto Rican Mother and Child (Margarita and Carlitos), shows Margarita cross-legged holding her sexualized infant close to her, with an air of sorrow and absent-mindedness. Five years later, Neel revisits the subject again in The Spanish Family. Here we can witness Margarita’s progression in her role as a mother, surrounded by three children and sitting before a delicate filigree of wrought iron.

Alice Neel - The Spanish Family (1943)
Alice Neel – The Spanish Family (1943), oil on canvas

This time Margarita looks mature and dignified, with her knees together, holding her baby in her lap. Staring sternly at us, she appears almost resigned in her motherhood. Part of the maturity Margarita exudes is also due to how balanced Neel’s composition is, with the mother as the central figure, her face awash in light and shadows to signal her complexity.

To the right, gently clinging to her is her daughter, while to the left Carlitos – now the eldest of three – looks rather sad with his hands clasped together like an adult. It seems as though they both would rather run off and play than sit still for a family portrait. Although they’re visibly uncomfortable, these gracious, well-behaved children reinforce Margarita’s presence and her strength in guiding and keeping her family tight-knit.

The resoluteness of the mother and the sorrow of the children gain new dimensions once we discover – through Neel’s art – why the father is absent. Painted three years earlier, T.B. Harlem is a portrait of 24-year-old Carlos Negrón after his thoracoplasty, a drastic procedure involving the removal of ribs to collapse the tuberculosis-infected lung. Negron, depicted as a martyr, epitomizes the harsh conditions of living in the overcrowded, poverty-stricken Harlem, the shadow of his illness still looming over his children years later in The Spanish Family.

Alice Neel - T. B. Harlem (1940)
Alice Neel – T. B. Harlem (1940), oil on canvas

Inspired by Honoré de Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, Neel’s creed was that a person’s physiognomy and body posture revealed not only their individuality and personal idiosyncrasies, but also the character of their era. “That’s really what life is – The Human Comedy. And put together, that’s what my paintings are”, she often said in her lectures.

Perhaps this is why even the titles of her paintings went from the very specific Puerto Rican Mother and Child (Margarita and Carlitos) to a general The Spanish Family, as a point of reference for the families of Hispanics living in Harlem in the early 1940s. In this sense she reminds us of German artist Otto Dix who, through the Portrait of Journalist Sylvia von Harden, wanted to capture the modern spirit of 1920s Berlin.

Neel loved Harlem greatly with all its residents, whether they were Hispanic, African-American, Asian, Jewish or Caucasian and her portraits mirrored that. She lived there for twenty-four years, until she moved to the Upper West Side in 1962.  An undated note from her journal – believed to have been written towards the end of World War II – eloquently and endearingly reveals the inspiration fueling her creative force, the closest thing we have to seeing the underlying energy of her art translated into words:

“I love you Harlem your life your pregnant women, your relief lines

outside the bank, full of women who no dress in Saks 5th ave would

fit, teeth missing, weary, out of shape, little black arms around their

necks clinging to their skirts all the wear and worry of struggle on

their faces. what a treasure of goodness and life shambles thru the

streets, abandoned, despised, charged the most, given the worst/ I

love you for electing Marcantonio, and him for being what he is And

for the rich deep vein of human feeling buried under your fire

engines your poverty and your loves”

26 thoughts on “Alice Neel – The Spanish Family (1943)

  1. I’m curious. Do you have any idea of what that is on the bed to the right of Margarita in the first painting? I enlarged my web page but can’t figure out what it is. At first I thought it might be a diaper since the boy is basically naked but I don’t think that’s it. Given there is nothing else in the composition other than the mother and child it seems strange to have a random bit of something so prominently displayed, especially standing out as white on red.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Portrait art is still unfashionable and difficult to sell although I think it’s incredibly difficult to do well. I love Alice Neel’s paintings. Those really are those people. You get a real sense of them, the tired looking mother, the emaciated father, they are incredible paintings.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve only discovered Neel in the last year and I think I have you to thank for that, Emma. If I’m not mistaken, she was mentioned in one of your lists of favorite female artists. Thank you for introducing me to her art.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a wonderful focus on Alice Neel’s early life and career. Thank you for a wonderful angle as usual, Gabriela.
    I have admired her portraits for quite some time: they is always the most beautiful, at times painful, expressionism in the colors she applies for skin (faces and hands), pulsating an energy that I really find impossible not to admire for longer moments than I always envisage. I love the picture my daughter took of me in front of her portrait of Mildred Myers Oldden which sits in my local museum here in SD…So much, I have put it in the About section of my blog 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s such a great photo! It works perfectly for you. It’s as if Mildred Myers Oldden was giving you life advice there: “Ingrid, dear, you must take life by the balls. And wear some shoulder pads, for crying out loud!”.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not sure what I think of her. I think her initial dismissal may not just be because she was a figurative artist, but because, on the face of it, her work looks very amateur, even clumsy. Lucien Freud, Phillip Pearlstein, and even David Hockney, worked figuratively, but I think got a lot more recognition, possibly because their work is obviously very skilled, and otherwise sophisticated. Could be gender, but then there was Frida Kahlo, who is enormously popular. One is never really sure, when someone deliberately works in a loose, breezy, clumsy fashion, that it is entirely choice (ex., if one doesn’t achieve relatively proper anatomy, lighting, and so on, it may be because they can’t.).

    I do like certain of her portraits, and she’s much better in the aggregate. She’s not really my cup of tea (in the same way I’m not a big fan of the Stooges, or the Ramones), because, I suppose, I like a bit more flair in my art. Not too much. Pearlstein is a bit dry and with super elaborate plays of lines and shapes… There’s gotta’ be balance. But that’s just one person’s personal preference. I’d like to see a show of hers and really give her paintings a chance (or rather, myself a chance to appreciate them properly).

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    1. I think it’s Neel’s “clumsiness” that appeals here. It makes her come across as highly expressive and authentic. I would rather think her style is completely intentional – her later works look so much like caricatures and they show an increasing simplification that couldn’t have been left to chance.

      I’m sorry you didn’t like these paintings. I know you’re quite generous with female artists.


      1. It’s not that I don’t like them. I do. Well, not so much these two, but there are plenty of paintings by her that I do like. I have my reasons and so on, but, everyone has their limitations of scope and flat spots. In fact I think everyone is a little insane. No matter how good an artist or musician… is, everyone isn’t going to agree on anyone, simply because of tastes. I was talking to a guy from work the other day, and he makes a good case that I totally miss the point of Iggy Pop and the Stooges. On the other hand, he dosen’t like the Beatles, and I know he’s missing a lot there.

        I do like a rough, expressive style, if I like Van Gogh and Emil Nolde. Over-sophistication can look academic and impersonal, as you say.

        when I comment, well, I’m not just going to fawn or rail, but I’ll bring up slight differences in perception and preference. These things are so delicate. How does one share an opinion or idea without coming off this way or that? The world is so combative.

        I should probably be better at making the positive elements more clear, such as that you are giving me an opportunity to consider, and reconsider, the paintings of Alice Neil.

        And, I especially agree with your statement that it’s the clumsiness that appeals to you. Another artist to consider in this light is Henry Taylor. I rather like him, but he’s not one of my favorites. His style is loose and clumsy (though not in the same way as Neil), and expressive. But if we are going to talk about contemporary black male artists who paint black subjects, I’m a much bigger fan of Kerry James Marshall, partly just because I’m impressed by the obvious skill which is put into use to realize a unique vision. Not just skill, but skill that is necessary to realize a particular vision.

        Anyway, I’m withholding coming to a conclusion on Alice Neil until at least I’ve had an opportunity to get a really good look at some of her best works.



  5. That is my grandmother Margarita and my uncle Carlos (Orisis). “Puerto RIcan” family is Grandma Margie, My uncle Carlos, My father Thomas and aunt Margie. “T.B. In Harlem is a painting of my Grandfather Carlos in the hospital.

    It’s nice to see sop many people discovering Alice, who was a fixture in our family. Weird to see so many people inventing weird stories and meanings to “explain” Alice’s art.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is my grandmother Margarita and my uncle Carlos (Orisis).

      Regarding “Spanish Family”:
      “To the right, gently clinging to her is her daughter, while to the left Carlitos – now the eldest of three – looks rather sad with his hands clasped together like an adult”

      “Spanish family” is not Calitos on the left. The painting depicts Grandma Margarita My father Thomas on the left, aunt Margie on the right and my uncle Bobby being held by my Grandma . My uncle Carlitos (Orisis) is older than Titi Margie and my Father Tomas while Titi Margie and My father are (were) a year apart in age.

      “T.B. In Harlem is a painting of my Grandfather Carlos (Tio Jose’s brother) in the hospital.

      It’s nice to see so many people discovering Alice, who was a fixture in our family. Weird to see so many people inventing weird stories and meanings to “explain” Alice’s art.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for your corrections, Samuel! I guess my source was wrong. I will revisit this post when I get the chance and add your clarifications. It must be very frustrating to see your family’s history blurred like this. I really appreciate you taking the time to set the record straight.


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