“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 On the one hand, they were clearly anachronistic and perceived as outdated, drawing inspiration from 19th century realism.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.
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.
This time Margarita looks mature and dignified, with her knees clasped together while she holds a baby in her lap — it’s Bobby, the latest addition to the family. 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, and her face awash in light and shadows to signal her complexity.
To the right, gently clinging to her is her daughter, also called Margarita, while to the left Thomas — the second eldest — 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 their mother’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. Negrón, 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.
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”