A Reflection of the Work of Alice Neel

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we hope you enjoy this print in our collection. If you visit the museum, it is on view in the lobby gallery.

Alice Neel (American, 1900–84)
Olivia, 1980
Silkscreen on paper
29 7/8″ H x 24″ W  
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts  
Museum purchase, A2136,81.0308  

This portrait depicts Alice Neel’s granddaughter, Olivia, looking at the viewer with a straightforward, spontaneous gaze as if she has momentarily paused from her activity. Lounging in a gray upholstered chair in casual ease, Olivia throws her leg over the arm. Note how the artist used a simple palette of green and purple and did not fully shade her granddaughter’s arms and legs, a compositional choice that lends this print the immediacy and sketchiness of a drawing.

Throughout her long career, Neel consistently worked in a representational style, creating unflinchingly honest and intense portraits of family, friends, and fellow artists, including Andy Warhol and Red Grooms. Her subjects express universal human emotions of fear, strength, pain, and defiance, revealing people’s personalities and insecurities.  Neel interpreted the honesty of her own portraits, saying, “I believe what I am is a humanist. That’s the way I see the world and that is what I paint.”

Neel endured an extraordinarily difficult life. Facing numerous challenges, she became one of the century’s most powerful portrait painters. Raised in rural Pennsylvania, Neel abandoned her family’s middle-class milieu for a life as a professional artist and political activist, usually living in poor urban neighborhoods.

After graduating from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art) in 1925, she fell in love with the Cuban painter Carlos Enríquez. They married and moved to Havana, where their daughter Santillana was born. In 1927, they settled in New York City and Neel’s life began to fall apart.

First, Santillana died of diphtheria; then Enríquez suddenly moved to Paris, taking their second daughter Isabella with him. Suffering from these losses, Neel experienced a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide, and was hospitalized for six months. Her subsequent relationships with men were often volatile and rocky, but she became the mother of two more children who remained an integral part of her life.

In Julie Phillip’s book, The Baby on the Fire Escape (2022), a meditation on maternal identity and artistic greatness, the award-winning author discusses Neel’s selfhood as well as the complexities of being a mother-artist and an art world celebrity. From January to February 1977, Neel’s work was also the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.