Artist Alice Neel’s Portraits on Display at Retrospective at de Young Museum

By Noma Faingold

Alice Neel, considered one of the greatest American portraitists of the 20th century, sought to reveal the unflinching truth about her subjects – usually something they never saw in themselves. She considered herself “a collector of souls.”

A retrospective of her work, titled “Alice Neel: People Come First,” opened at the de Young Museum on March 12 and runs through July 10. 

The retrospective exhibition “Alice Neel: People Come First” includes several of Neel’s portraits, including these in the “Motherhood” section of the exhibit. Photo by Noma Faingold.

Neel painted a few famous people, including a shirtless, scarred Andy Warhol (two years after he was shot three times in the torso). However, most of her subjects were working-class people who lived in her Spanish Harlem neighborhood, as well as those on the fringe, such as members of the LGBTQ community and Communist Party activists. 

Neel, who was born in 1900 and grew up in rural Pennsylvania, earned a degree from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and lived in Cuba for a few years before settling in New York City in 1927.

“I like to paint people who are in the rat race, suffering all the tension and damage that’s involved in that – under pressure, really, of city life and the awful struggle that goes on in the city,” she said.

The only West Coast exhibition of Neel’s work – a version of which originated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City last year – is divided into several sections, offering distinct themes in Neel’s work, including “The Nude” and the largest gallery, “Counter Culture.”

Alice Neel surrounded by her work. (Photo of the photo at the exhibit.)

Lauren Palmor, assistant curator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said, “‘Counter Culture’ is a name that could apply to every piece in the show. Her astonishing body of work resists easy categorization.”

Also featured are paintings Neel created during her time living in San Francisco, in 1967 and 1969.

Palmor is proud of the way the de Young exhibition is organized, specifically having the “Home” and “Motherhood” sections sharing a gallery, which reflects the way Neel lived, raising two sons in the home where she painted. She never had the luxury of a separate artist studio. 

“Her home was her studio,” said Palmor. “She was always living in this dichotomy of artist/mother. She talked about this push and pull she felt.”

Neel’s paintings of pregnant women show an ambivalence and discomfort, like 1971’s “Pregnant Woman,” which depicts a nude woman in the late stages of pregnancy, reclining on a couch, looking more fearful than serene. 

“She rejected what wasn’t true and, in that, she sometimes rejected sentimentalism,” Palmor said. “She never tried to flatter, and she painted things as she saw them. Sometimes that would make her sitters feel repulsed by the resulting paintings.”

Neel did not shy away from brutal honesty when it came to a self-portrait, one of the last paintings she completed, at age 80. It’s a nude, of course. She is slightly leaning forward in an upholstered chair, paintbrush in one hand and an old rag in other. There is no vanity in the way she paints her overweight, elderly body. Her facial expression shows hard-earned wisdom.

“She presents herself as an artist first and foremost,” said Palmor. “She was compulsively honest. She rejected nothing and scorned nothing. Neel’s work is a lesson in seeing, feeling, knowing and listening. She was absolutely radical for her times.”

Alice Neel: People Come First” runs through July 10 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. For more information, see:

The 2007 documentary, “Alice Neel” will be screened at the Koret Auditorium, April 9, at 1 p.m., followed by a Q & A with director Andrew Neel (Alice’s grandson).

Photos by Michael Durand.

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