Alice Neel (American, Merion Square, Penn. 1900 - 1984 New York)
Portrait of Ellen Johnson, 1976
Signed and dated lower right in blue: Neel 76
Oil on canvas
44 x 38 in. (111.8 x 81.3 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund and gift of the artist in honor of Ellen Johnson on the occasion of her retirement, 1977
Neel's portait of Ellen Johnson captures the subject's mobility of mind and frank presentation of self. As in many of Neel's portraits, the work combines physiognomic precision with a sense of the body's unease, imperfection, and vulnerability.
The Oberlin portrait was created during the peak of Neel's reputation as a painter of art-world celebrities as well as people in her immediate environment.1 Ellen Johnson (1910-1992, professor of art, Oberlin College, and honorary curator of modern art, AMAM) posed for this portrait over the course of several weeks during the spring of 1976 at Neel's apartment in Spanish Harlem. Johnson's account of those grueling sessions is similar to those of other sitters, such as Cindy Nemser and Henry Hope.2 She found the pose uncomfortable and difficult to hold, and it was only after she rose, against Neel's orders, and promptly fell, due to the numbness in her leg, that Neel allowed her more frequent breaks.
Neel worked directly on the canvas without preparatory drawings. She quickly outlined the composition in a thin solution of blue (and occasionally ochre), then built up the work slowly, "but still with positive strokes, no fumbling."3 Johnson's slides of the various stages of the painting record Neel's initial focus on the head and facial expression, and her increasing stress on the awkward frontality of the subject's right shoulder and arm.4 "You won't like this portrait," Neel told Johnson during one session, "because I'm making you look a little askew. But you are a little akew. You certainly aren't square."5 The pale blue shadow behind the figure (yet just beside the turned right arms of both sitter and chair) underscores the disjuncture in position and axis.
Typical of Neel's portraiture, the Oberlin painting is attentive to facial characteristics--lines, shadows, wrinkles, asymmetries--that portray both literal appearance and a characteristic movement of mind. By contrast, the limbs are loosely, sometimes vaguely rendered, and foreshortening is abbreviated and deliberately awkward, as in the rendering of Johnson's lap. The proportions of the hands are often distorted, the shape and knots of the fingers frequently exaggerated. According to Johnson, the hands are the work's finest passage. "But then [Neel's] hands are always individual and expressive....It would be hard to find any Neel hands...that are not communicative."6 Neel often emphasized specific details of clothing--here, it is Johnson's dotted blouse of early 1970s vintage, replete with zipper and broad, pointed collar--that give her portraits a strong sense of time and place.7
Work reproduced with permission of Robert Miller, New York
Born in Merion Square, Pennsylvania in 1900, Neel was the daughter of a railroad clerk, and grew up in the small Pennsylvania town of Colwyn. She attended the Philadelphia School of Design (now Moore College of Art). During a summer session at the Chester Springs Art School, she met Carlos Enriguez, a wealthy Cuban, whom she married after graduation in 1925. The two had a daughter and moved to Cuba, and then returned to New York, where their daughter died of diptheria. Neel and Carlos had a second daughter in 1928. Shortly after, Carlos took the child, abandoning Neel and triggering her nervous breakdown. Following treatment in Pennsylvania, Neel returned to New York, where she lived with Kenneth Doolittle, a former sailor, in Greenwich Village.
From then on, Neel continued to develop themes she had already addressed in the 1920s--portraits of famous, odd, and often poor people, as well as still lifes and cityscapes--laid down in thick, dark layers of paint, in a style that drew from 1930s North American realism and Latin American social realism and expressionism. Neel's personal life continued to be unconventional and difficult (she had several children, fathered by several different men). Her painting, which differed sharply from the art fashionable in New York during the 1940s and '50s, did not achieve recognition until the early '60s, when Neel was over sixty.
While the breadth of her work was represented in various exhibitions and retrospectives, it was chiefly her portraits of the 1960s and '70s, with their brighter palette, thin surface of paint, and fluid lines, that secured her reputation as a painter who "catches humanity's moment of greatest doubt and suspends the thought forever on a flat and fragile mirror-like plane."8 In the 1970s she gave frequent slide lectures of her work.
Alice Neel died in New York in 1984.
Nemser, Cindy, et al. Alice Neel: The Woman and her Work. Exh. cat., Georgia Museum of Art, The University of Georgia, Athens, 1975, n. p.
Hope, Henry R. "Alice Neel: Portraits of an Era." Art Journal 38, no. 4 (Summer 1979), pp. 273-81.
Hills, Patricia. Alice Neel, New York, 1983.
Purchased from the artist in 1977
Akron Art Institute, 1979. Alice Neel. 9 December - 28 January. No cat.
Johnson, Ellen H. Fragments Recalled at Eighty: The Art Memoirs of Ellen H. Johnson. Edited by Athena Tacha. North Vancouver, 1993, pp. 146-50.
The painting is in good condition; the colors appear fresh and the surface stable. The texture of the canvas weave is visible through the moderate layer of white ground, which extends to all edges of the tacking margins. The paint is thinly applied throughout; the surface has not been varnished. At present, the canvas is somewhat slack on its stretcher.
1. In 1974, Alice Neel was given a solo exhibition, accompanied by a modest catalogue, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. In 1975, a Neel retrospective with eighty-three works was held at the Georgia Museum of Art, The University of Georgia, Athens, along with a copiously illustrated catalogue that included an essay by Cindy Nemser, texts by Raphael Soyer and Dorothy Pearlstein, and a transcript of Neel's doctoral address at the Moore College of Art, Philadelphia, in 1971.
2. Ellen H. Johnson, Fragments Recalled at Eighty: The Art Memoirs of Ellen H. Johnson, ed. Athena Tacha (North Vancouver, 1993), pp. 146-50; Cindy Nemser, "Alice Neel--Teller of Truth," in Alice Neel: The Woman and her Work(exh. cat., Georgia Museum of Art, The University of Georgia, Athens, 1975), n. p.; and Henry R. Hope, "Alice Neel: Portraits of an Era," Art Journal38, no. 4 (Summer 1979), pp. 277-78.
3. Ellen H. Johnson, Fragments Recalled at Eighty: The Art Memoirs of Ellen H. Johnson, ed. Athena Tacha (North Vancouver, 1993), p. 149.
4. The slides are reproduced in Ellen H. Johnson, Fragments Recalled at Eighty: The Art Memoirs of Ellen H. Johnson, ed. Athena Tacha (North Vancouver, 1993), pp. 147-48.
5. Quoted in Ellen H. Johnson, Fragments Recalled at Eighty: The Art Memoirs of Ellen H. Johnson , ed. Athena Tacha (North Vancouver, 1993), p. 150.
6. See Ellen H. Johnson, "Alice Neel's Fifty Years of Portrait Painting," Studio International 193 (March 1977), pp. 174-79.
7. The blouse and sweater worn by Ellen Johnson in this portrait are in the permanent collection of the AMAM (inv. 92.10.1-2).
8. William, D. Paul, Jr. Introduction to Alice Neel: The Woman and Her Work (exh. cat., Georgia Museum of Art, The University of Georgia, Athens, 1975), n. p.