Meet the neighbours: Alice Neel’s Harlem portraits. By Tim Adams
As a new show opens in London, curator Hilton Als talks about the great 20th-century painter, whose portraits celebrate urban life
Alice Neel, born in 1900, and raised in white, middle-class Pennsylvania, moved to Harlem in New York at the age of 38. She was still recovering from the tragedy of her first marriage, which had seen her first daughter die of diphtheria as a baby, and her second daughter abducted and taken to Cuba by her estranged husband. The shock of those events led to Neel being committed briefly to an asylum. She had two further children, both sons, with whom she lived, most of the time as a single mother, while she tried to make a living from her painting.
Neel painted what she saw around her: the faces, mostly Hispanic and black, of the community in which she had made her home. It took a long time for her portraits to gain a wider audience. It was not until the late 1960s that she began to be recognised as one of the great American painters of the century, not least because her work offered a unique window on the changing world of Harlem in the years before and during civil rights. (The FBI, which kept her under surveillance as a deviant in the 1950s, denoted her as a “romantic bohemian type communist”). The first retrospective of her work was at the Whitney Museum in 1974, 10 years before her death.
Image: Alice Neel, Pregnant Maria, 1964, © The Estate of Alice Neel, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Victoria Miro, London