Havana, Cuba (1926–1927)
Alice Neel graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1925. Soon after, she married Cuban artist Carlos Enríquez. Although Neel lived with her husband in Havana for just one year, the way of life and the avant-garde in Cuba had a profound influence on her. At the time, she employed coarse brushstrokes and dark tones. She depicted everyday life in Cuba, and following the percepts of the American realist painter, Robert Henri – whom she admired in her youth – she also depicted the underprivileged classes.
New York and Philadelphia (1927–1932)
Alice Neel moved to New York with her family in autumn 1927. Neel worked in a bookstore in Greenwich Village and Enríquez as an illustrator and reporter. Their daughter, Santillana, who had been born in Cuba, died of diphtheria, and their second daughter, Isabella (Isabetta), was born in November 1928. Enríquez, however, unexpectedly left Neel and took Isabetta to Cuba. Alice Neel returned to live with her parents in Philadelphia but was hospitalised for a nervous breakdown in autumn 1930. Neel’s paintings are often autobiographical and coloured by her personal losses. The sense of alienation, grief and death are powerful presences in her visual world.
Greenwich Village and Chelsea (1932–1938)
In early 1932, Alice Neel was discharged from the hospital, and she moved to Greenwich Village in New York. Many artists and writers lived in the area, some of whom sat for Neel. Greenwich Village was famous for its revolutionary and radical atmosphere, which comes across clearly in Neel’s work. She came to know several members of the Communist Party, which had a profound impact on her thinking and values, as evidenced by her numerous portraits of political activists and influential figures of the time. In 1935 Neel enrolled in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) programme, which enabled her to rent an apartment in Chelsea.
Spanish Harlem (1938–1962)
When Alice Neel moved from the bohemian Chelsea to Spanish Harlem in 1938, she was pregnant with her son, Richard, whose father was nightclub singer José Negrón. Known today as El Barrio, the area was populated by many Latin American and Puerto Rican immigrants. The move gave Neel an opportunity to meet a completely different class of people, which is evident in the sitters of her portraits. Neel’s second son, Hartley, was born in Spanish Harlem. His father was filmmaker and photographer Sam Brody. Neel lived in Spanish Harlem until 1962, mainly painting portraits of her family and friends.
Upper West Side (1962–1984)
In 1962 Alice Neel moved to the Upper West Side, an area favoured by artists and academics, where she lived until the end of her life. Upper West Side was another new environment for her, and Neel began searching for sitters from the world of art. She now busily painted artists, critics, art historians and representatives of subcultures. The doors of the male-dominated art world slowly began to open for women. The Whitney Museum of American Art finally organised Neel’s first retrospective show in 1974. Now a role model for feminists, in her later period Neel painted more freely, using a brighter and lighter palette and a deliberately “non finito” style.