Alice Neel: Sixties Harlem and the ‘unseen America’ come to London. By Hettie Judah
Is it personal, lived experience that gave Alice Neel her intense, probing humanity?
Certainly the American artist’s life was not short on pain. Born in Pennsylvania in 1900, Neel seems to have been drawn to glamorous and flighty men.
A 1926 portrait of her husband, the Cuban artist Carlos Enriquez, shows him suave and impeccable, but not meeting her gaze, seated at a café table with a flute of white wine. Neel’s first child with Enriquez – Santillana – died of diphtheria before her first birthday. Her second – Isabetta – was taken from Neel by Enriquez at only five months old, and left to live with his sisters in Havana.
Soon afterwards, at the age of 30, Neel suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised for 11 months, some of them on the “suicidal” ward. In the following years she suffered the devastation of a late-pregnancy miscarriage, and had two more children with different men, one of whom left her when their son was only three months old. By her early 40s, Neel was living in Spanish Harlem as a single mother with two young sons.
Image: Alice Neel, Abdul Rahman, 1964