Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Drawing, Painting and Alice Neel

My baby
My baby
Last night I fixed a big bowl of popcorn and watched the documentary on the life of Alice Neel created by her grandson, Andrew Neel. In a nutshell she lived a classic artist's life. She had several tumultuous relationships, four children and spent her life in poverty. In her 70's she became famous.

My son
Alice Neel is called a portrait painter. Technically she is but I've never thought of her that way. I think of Alice Neel as a painter who liked to paint people. She painted other things as well as people but it was the heart and soul of another that she liked to capture. My definition of a portrait painter is an artist who paints people on commission. That was not Alice Neel even though, she may have done this at the end of her life.
She painted people the way Picasso did, to capture their spirit.  Her paintings are psychologically probing, not the sort of painting that flatters the individual sitter.  To me this isn't portrait painting.

My husband
Crazy Relationships and Art
In her early years it seems that Alice Neel was ruled by romantic love.  She seemed to fall head over heals in love and then later suffer the consequences, like many of us!  Art comes along for the ride to document and our art often bails us out, emotionally.
One of her children died and she lost a little girl in her marriage split-up. Her husband's family raised the child in Cuba. As a result, she spent time in a mental institution.
In her mid to late 30's she had two boys. Each of them was a result of a different love affair, one with a younger Latino man and one with a documentary filmmaker. In these years of struggle, she rarely sold a painting and lived on welfare. She raised her boys on the dole and yet, they both managed to go to college and become financially successful.

Still life drawing

Alice Neel lived in the same apartment in a poor neighborhood in New York for most of her life. She moved to Spanish Harlem from Greenwich Village early on and stayed for most of her remaining years. Like Picasso she filled her living space with stacks of paintings. It's interesting to see the progression in her art and glimpses of her shabby apartment in NYC in the documentary.  Suffer for Art?  Alice Neel did but late in life she reinvented herself as a famous artist.  Amazing!

Alice Neel did the impossible. She did not live on her art but she lived for her art. She did not get a job, make a living or stay with a man. She managed to keep painting in spite of hardships and deep poverty. 
What of the many artists who have sacrificed for their art but did not, in the end, become well-known?  Or what of the artists who only became famous after they died in poverty, obscurity and misery?  Such is the creative life!  We live for the journey.
Drawings by Charlotte Rossmann