Alice Neel: “The place where I had freedom most was when I painted”
Alice Neel was born in Merion Square, Pennsylvania, and moved to the rural town of Colwyn, Pennsylvania, when she was about three months old. She took the Civil Service exam and got a high-paying clerical position after high school in order to help support her parents. After three years of work, taking art classes by night in Philadelphia, Neel finally enrolled full-time in the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. Neel often said that she chose to attend an all-girls school so as not to be distracted from her art by the temptations of the opposite sex.Cuba
Shortly after finishing her studies Neel married a Cuban painter named Carlos Enríquez, the son of wealthy parents. They were wed in 1925 and moved to Havana the following year to live with Enríquez’s family. In Havana, Neel was embraced by the burgeoning Cuban avant-garde, a set of young writers, artists and musicians. In this environment Neel developed the foundations of her life long political consciousness and commitment to equality.
Personal difficulties, themes for art
In 1926 she became pregnant with her first child. Following the birth of her daughter, Santillana, Alice returned to her parents’ home in Colwyn. Carlos followed soon after, and the family moved to New York City. Just before Santillana’s first birthday, she died of diphtheria. The trauma caused by Santillana’s death infused the content of Neel’s paintings, setting a precedent for the themes of motherhood, loss, and anxiety that permeated her work for the duration of her career.
Immediately following Santillana’s death, Neel became pregnant with her second child, Isabetta. Isabetta’s birth in 1928 inspired the creation of “Well Baby Clinic”, a bleak portrait of mothers and babies in a maternity clinic more reminiscent of an insane asylum than a nursery.
In the spring of 1930, Carlos returned to Cuba, taking Isabetta with him. Mourning the loss of her husband and daughter, Neel suffered a massive nervous breakdown. After a brief period of hospitalization, she attempted suicide. She was placed in the suicide ward of the Philadelphia General Hospital. Deemed stable almost a year later, Neel was released from the sanitorium in 1931 and returned to her parents’ home. Following an extended visit with her close friend and frequent subject, Nadya Olyanova, Neel returned to New York.
There Neel painted the local characters, including Joe Gould, whom she famously depicted with multiple penises in 1933. Her world was composed of artists, intellectuals, and political leaders of the Communist Party, all of whom became subjects for her paintings. Her work glorified subversion and sexuality, depicting whimsical scenes of lovers and nudes.
At the end of 1933, Neel was hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which afforded her a modest weekly salary. In the 1930s Neel gained a degree of notoriety as an artist, and established a good standing within her circle of downtown intellectuals and Communist Party leaders. While Neel was never an official Communist Party member, her affiliation and sympathy with the ideals of Communism remained constant.
In 1939 Neel gave birth to her first son, Richard, the child of Jose Santiago, a Puerto Rican night-club singer whom Neel met in 1935. Neel moved to Spanish Harlem. She began painting her neighbors, particularly women and children. José left Neel in 1940