For today’s youth, vessels of expression are extremely important. Everyone has their own creative hobby that helps them get out their innermost emotions, fears, and thoughts. It is often said that art imitates life. You’re damn right it does. That’s the reason why people connect to music, writing, and anything artistic. They relate to it – see a part of themselves in it. In the case of Alice Neel, her art and her life were intertwined. Imitation isn’t a strong enough word.
Alice Neel (1900-1984) was born in Merion Square, Pennsylvania. After completing high school she worked full-time for three years while taking art classes at night. Eventually she grew tired of the routine of the 9 to 5 and decided to take art classes full-time at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. Alice admitted that she chose an all girls school on purpose. She didn’t want to be distracted from her art by the bands of boys. I feel that!
Shortly after completing her degree at PSDW, Alice fell into the trap o’ hot guys. She married a Cuban painter named Carlos Enríquez. A year after they were married the couple relocated to Havana to live with Carlos’ wealthy familia. Alice fit right in. She quickly made friends with the emerging avant-garde artists from Cuba.
The same year Alice became pregnant with her first child. Alice, Carlos, and their daughter moved to New York City soon after. Just before little Santillana’s first birthday, she died from diphtheria, an upper respiratory tract illness. The loss of her daughter is reflected in her work from that period in her life. Paintings created around the time of Santillana’s passing exhibited the themes of motherhood, loss, and anxiety. Alice used her work as an outlet; her emotions were obviously reflected in her work. Immediately after mourning the loss of her child, Alice became pregnant with another girl. The couple named their baby Isabetta.
In the Spring of 1930, Carlos took Isabetta and hopped on the next thing smoking to Cuba. Of course Alice was devastated. Not only did her first born die, but her husband decided to leave her and take their child too! Double whammy! A husband-less and childless Alice suffered a nervous breakdown. It got to the point of hospitalization and she even attempted suicide. In 1931 she was released from Philadelphia General Hospital’s suicide ward. Having nowhere else to turn, Alice went back to New York and got back to work.
In NYC, Alice surrounded herself with artists, intellectuals, and leaders of the Communist Party. The people she associated with the most became the subjects of her paintings. In 1935, Alice met a Puerto Rican singer who sung his way right into her heart (and her bed). Alice and Jose Santiago welcomed their son, Richard, in 1939. A year later, Jose left Alice. Curse you Jose!
Despite the two loves lost, Alice always kept her options open. One guy in particular, Communist intellectual Sam Brody, was a priority for Alice. The two welcomed a son in 1941. During the 1940s, Alice wore two hats. She was a Mommy and an illustrator for Masses & Mainstream, a Communist publication. The 1950s took Alice to a whole other level in her career. Her friendship with Mike Gold earned Alice her first show at the New Playwrights Theatre. Out girl made it to the big leagues!
The 1960s and 1970s were the most important years in Alice’s career. The Women’s Movement attracted extra attention to her work. She was chosen to paint Kate Millet in 1970 for the cover of Time Magazine. I’m lucky if I can even get the chance to read a Time Magazine. She gained much recognition for the Time cover and had her work exhibited twice at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The peak moment of Alice’s career happened in 1979. President Jimmy Carter presented her with a National Women’s Caucus for Art award for outstanding achievement. Alice stayed on her career high until her death in 1984.
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