Alice Neel, the rebel portraitist who saw her sitters clearly

A 1982 lithograph by Alice Neel, ‘Bather (Olivia with Red Hat),’ earned $13,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK — Portraits tell stories. The unflinching portraits by Alice Neel (1900-1984) are realistic and honest, showing a wide swath of humanity in a variety of settings: a young girl on a beach, a well-dressed businessman sitting in an office, a gay couple embracing, an immigrant family relaxing at home. These portraits tell many stories; in some, the viewer can only guess at the story by mulling a sitter’s enigmatic expression. As Neel herself once said, “For me, people come first. I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.”

Neel has been described as one of the most important portrait artists of the 20th century. At a time when male artists dominated the art world, and whose paintings were often made for male viewers, Neel’s work was a breath of fresh air. Her paintings subscribed to the ‘female gaze’ concept in art, especially in her powerful nudes of women that were decidedly not made for male viewers to drool over. A fine example is an untitled 1966 lithograph of a woman shown nude from the waist up. She is not lolling on a bed or posing seductively. Instead, she sits upright, assertively, and stares at the viewer as if to ask what they are looking at. This work made $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022 at Rago Arts and Auction Center.
This untitled Alice Neel lithograph of a nude woman made $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.
This untitled Alice Neel lithograph of a nude woman made $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

Neel also stands out for specializing in figurative painting at a time when Abstract Expressionism was in vogue. “Alice Neel was a rebel. She painted female nudes exuding their own self-created, personal power, not derived from sexuality,” said Wade Terwilliger, president of Palm Beach Modern Auctions in West Palm Beach, Florida. “She was associated with scandalous social circles, lived in poverty — even shoplifting to support her children, according to an article I read — and had a fascinating history of love affairs, one of which resulted in the burning of 350 of her works. She followed this up by painting herself nude at 80 years of age. As a multifaceted rebel in her own life, her artistic genre is just one aspect of her contrarianism.”

Alice Neel’s lithograph ‘Mother and Child (Nancy and Olivia)’ realized $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2023. Image courtesy of Freeman’s Hindman and LiveAuctioneers.
Alice Neel’s lithograph ‘Mother and Child (Nancy and Olivia)’ realized $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2023. Image courtesy of Freeman’s Hindman and LiveAuctioneers.

In her portraits, Neel strove to not make a subject beautiful or handsome, but to instead show the subject’s humanity. Any so-called ‘flaws,’ from a tired smile by an exhausted mother to an extra roll of flesh, only made her subjects more relatable. In lithographs such as Mother and Child (Nancy and Olivia), which realized $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2023 at Freeman’s Hindman, she departs from her male contemporaries’ typical idealized views of motherhood. In this portrait of her daughter-in-law, she shows that motherhood is life-changing. Neel’s own motherhood experiences were fraught with tremendous challenges. She lived a tumultuous life, and ended up having four children with three men. After losing her firstborn daughter to diphtheria at age one, her husband left her, taking their second child with him. Neel suffered a nervous breakdown and spent six months in a hospital after attempting suicide. Her subsequent relationships with men yielded two more children, but were not drama-free.

An oil on Masonite by Alice Neel, ‘Black Spanish Intellectual,’ attained $80,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auction and LiveAuctioneers.
An oil on Masonite by Alice Neel, ‘Black Spanish Intellectual,’ attained $80,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022. Image courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

In certain portraits, she steers clear of typical portraiture conventions and depicts her sitters turned away from the viewer, perhaps locked in a moment of deep thought. Black Spanish Intellectual, an oil on Masonite that attained $80,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at Palm Beach Modern Auctions, clearly demonstrates this approach.

Black Spanish Intellectual offers Neel’s typical complexity of expression, and some mystery that makes this portrait special,” said Terwilliger. “Instead of a direct, intense gaze back at the viewer, there is quiet conflict, a reaction to an internal dialogue, or something happening off camera, and that is a strength.”

A crayon, watercolor, and gouache and pencil Alice Neel portrait of noted feminist journalist and art collector Harriet Lyons soared above its $20,000-$30,000 estimate to bring $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.
A crayon, watercolor, gouache, and pencil Alice Neel portrait of noted feminist journalist and art collector Harriet Lyons soared above its $20,000-$30,000 estimate to bring $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

Born and raised in a Philadelphia suburb, Neel lived in Cuba for a while before settling in New York City in the 1930s. There, she lived in two very different neighborhoods: Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side, and her experiences in both fueled her interest in painting people from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. She painted family and neighbors as well as those in the arts. She was also interested in social justice, and painted activists. In her 1974 portrait of Harriet Lyons, a founding editor of the feminist magazine Ms., Neel portrays Lyons with a direct and commanding gaze — an artistic choice that honors the important work the sitter was doing in writing about issues of women’s sexuality and rights. The crayon, watercolor, gouache, and pencil portrait made $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021 at Swann Auction Galleries.

Neel also trained her unflinching gaze on a young girl on the beach in a 1982 lithograph, Bather (Olivia with Red Hat), which earned $13,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Heritage Auctions in October 2021. She captures the child, who is dressed in a bikini and a bucket hat and has her hands on her hips, staring at the viewer with an expression of mild annoyance, at an age when she is still confident in her body.

The auction market is strong for Neel, particularly among United States-based collectors, but European audiences have begun taking notice. According to the Alice Neel website, she received little attention in Europe until “exhibitions that toured Europe in 2010 and 2016 resulted finally in her recognition as a world renowned artist.” New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted a major Neel retrospective in 2021 that renewed attention and drove a price spike immediately after. “Her highest auction results for paintings are recent, within the last three years,” Terwilliger said. “Of those over $1 million, only one was prior to 2021. Editions are in a similar trend as well.”

An Alice Neel screenprint of ‘Geoffrey Hendricks & Brian’ took $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023. Image courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
An Alice Neel screenprint of ‘Geoffrey Hendricks & Brian’ took $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023. Image courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

For beginning collectors who admire Neel’s work, her editioned prints are often a good entry point. Prices can vary from a few thousand dollars to more than $10,000. A signed screenprint of Geoffrey Hendricks & Brian took a strong price of $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023 at Palm Beach Modern Auctions. This particular work likely performed so well as it was prominently featured in the Met’s retrospective. “It was very recognizable to collectors, even among the many evocative depictions she made of queer life and relationships,” Terwilliger said.

While her drawings obviously don’t bring prices that match her original oil paintings, they are highly sought after. An untitled ink and gouache on paper known as Young Girl Sitting at a Table brought $22,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021 at Rago Arts and Auction Center.

An untitled Alice Neel ink and gouache on paper, also known as ‘Young Girl Sitting at a Table’, brought $22,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.
An untitled Alice Neel ink and gouache on paper, also known as ‘Young Girl Sitting at a Table’, brought $22,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

Neel’s artworks are as relevant today as when she painted them. Calling herself a collector of souls, she depicted people from all corners of society. In each work, she imbued a sense of the sitter’s dignity, whether they were a vaunted art critic or a washerwoman. Psychologically intense, they nearly vibrate with emotion.

“You can look at Alice Neel’s portraits and immediately relate to them,” Terwilliger said. “She painted her subjects with candor and honesty, and often depicted states of mind that aren’t ‘pretty’, but are universally felt. Boredom, stress, curiosity, stoicism, exhaustion, and a smirk here and there keep her work relevant over 70-plus years.”

Bid Smart: Alice Baber, once overshadowed, now seen in full color

Alice Baber’s ‘Axe in the Grove,’ a 1966 oil on canvas, achieved $275,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2023. Image courtesy of John Moran Auctioneers, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

[av_heading heading=’Alice Baber, once overshadowed, now seen in full color’ tag=’h1′ style=” subheading_active=” show_icon=” icon=’ue800′ font=’entypo-fontello’ size=” av-desktop-font-size-title=” av-medium-font-size-title=” av-small-font-size-title=” av-mini-font-size-title=” subheading_size=” av-desktop-font-size=” av-medium-font-size=” av-small-font-size=” av-mini-font-size=” icon_size=” av-desktop-font-size-1=” av-medium-font-size-1=” av-small-font-size-1=” av-mini-font-size-1=” color=” custom_font=” subheading_color=” seperator_color=” icon_color=” margin=’,,35px,’ av-desktop-margin=” av-desktop-margin_sync=’true’ av-medium-margin=” av-medium-margin_sync=’true’ av-small-margin=’,,20px,’ av-mini-margin=” av-mini-margin_sync=’true’ headline_padding=” headline_padding_sync=’true’ av-desktop-headline_padding=” av-desktop-headline_padding_sync=’true’ av-medium-headline_padding=” av-medium-headline_padding_sync=’true’ av-small-headline_padding=” av-small-headline_padding_sync=’true’ av-mini-headline_padding=” av-mini-headline_padding_sync=’true’ padding=’10’ av-desktop-padding=” av-medium-padding=” av-small-padding=” av-mini-padding=” icon_padding=’10’ av-desktop-icon_padding=” av-medium-icon_padding=” av-small-icon_padding=” av-mini-icon_padding=” link=” link_target=” title_attr=” id=” custom_class=” template_class=” av_uid=’av-lmtem70x’ sc_version=’1.0′ admin_preview_bg=”][/av_heading]

[av_post_metadata post_selected=” seperator=’ | ‘ before_meta_content=’Andrea Valluzzo |’ after_meta_content=” margin=” margin_sync=’true’ padding=’,,35px,’ av-desktop-margin=” av-desktop-margin_sync=’true’ av-desktop-padding=” av-desktop-padding_sync=’true’ av-medium-margin=” av-medium-margin_sync=’true’ av-medium-padding=” av-medium-padding_sync=’true’ av-small-margin=” av-small-margin_sync=’true’ av-small-padding=” av-small-padding_sync=’true’ av-mini-margin=” av-mini-margin_sync=’true’ av-mini-padding=” av-mini-padding_sync=’true’ align=’left’ custom_title=” size=” av-desktop-font-size=” av-medium-font-size=” av-small-font-size=” av-mini-font-size=” alb_description=” id=” custom_class=” template_class=” av_uid=’av-lmteadyc’ sc_version=’1.0′ admin_preview_bg=”]
[av_metadata_item metadata=’published’ before_meta=” after_meta=” link_meta=’default’ link_target=” av_uid=’av-ap8r3nc’ sc_version=’1.0′]
[av_metadata_item metadata=’categories’ before_meta=’in’ after_meta=” link_meta=’default’ link_target=” av_uid=’av-uc0to8′ sc_version=’1.0′]
[/av_post_metadata]

[av_textblock fold_type=” fold_height=” fold_more=’Read more’ fold_less=’Read less’ fold_text_style=” fold_btn_align=” textblock_styling_align=” textblock_styling=” textblock_styling_gap=” textblock_styling_mobile=” size=” av-desktop-font-size=” av-medium-font-size=” av-small-font-size=” av-mini-font-size=” font_color=” color=” fold_overlay_color=” fold_text_color=” fold_btn_color=’theme-color’ fold_btn_bg_color=” fold_btn_font_color=” size-btn-text=” av-desktop-font-size-btn-text=” av-medium-font-size-btn-text=” av-small-font-size-btn-text=” av-mini-font-size-btn-text=” fold_timer=” z_index_fold=” av-desktop-hide=” av-medium-hide=” av-small-hide=” av-mini-hide=” id=” custom_class=” template_class=” av_uid=’av-fszcyig’ sc_version=’1.0′]

Alice Baber’s ‘Axe in the Grove,’ a 1966 oil on canvas, achieved $275,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2023. Image courtesy of John Moran Auctioneers, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.
Alice Baber’s ‘Axe in the Grove,’ a 1966 oil on canvas, achieved $275,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2023. Image courtesy of John Moran Auctioneers, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK — Alice Baber (1928-1982) is said to have had a hunger for color. She was one of the most important woman Abstract Expressionist artists working at a time when the field was dominated by men such as Rothko, de Kooning and Pollock. Her biomorphic color-stained canvases, featuring hazy spheres of pure hues, are renowned for their lyrical qualities.

Continue reading

NOMA spotlights pioneering Chinese American ceramicist Katherine Choy

Jack Robinson, photographer (American, 1928-1997), ‘Katherine Choy in New Orleans,’ 1952-1955. Photo courtesy Robinson Archive.
Jack Robinson, photographer (American, 1928-1997), ‘Katherine Choy in New Orleans,’ 1952-1955. Photo courtesy Robinson Archive.
Jack Robinson, photographer (American, 1928-1997), ‘Katherine Choy in New Orleans,’ 1952-1955. Photo courtesy Robinson Archive.

NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) presents Katherine Choy: Radical Potter in 1950s New Orleans, which opened on May 6 and continues through April 23, 2023. An innovative artist in a number of mediums, Katherine Choy (American, b. China 1927–1958) developed radical ceramic work that was distinctively her own. In her short mid-1950s career in New Orleans, Choy was a national leader in evolving ceramics from utilitarian objects into the purview of expressive fine art.

Continue reading

British Museum mounts exhibit centered around early portraitist of Queen Elizabeth II

Bust of Queen Elizabeth II r., wearing laurel wreath. Reproduced by permission of the artist © The Trustees of the British Museum
Bust of Queen Elizabeth II r., wearing laurel wreath. Reproduced by permission of the artist © The Trustees of the British Museum
Bust of Queen Elizabeth II r., wearing laurel wreath. Reproduced by permission of the artist © The Trustees of the British Museum

LONDON – In celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee in June, the British Museum will open a new, free display centering around artist Mary Gillick’s (1881-1965) portrait of the British royal. This portrait was for the first ever coin featuring the queen, designed 70 years ago in 1952 and issued in 1953. Mary Gillick: modelling The Queen’s portrait opens on June 2 and continues to July 31. It will showcase the production and reception of the coin, shining a light on the excitement around the young queen’s first depiction on British currency.

Continue reading

Barnes to host first major US exhibition of Suzanne Valadon paintings

Suzanne Valadon, ‘Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte,’ 1913. Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, purchased from the artist, 1937. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/Image © DeA Picture Library/Art Resource, NY
Suzanne Valadon, ‘Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte,’ 1913. Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, purchased from the artist, 1937. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/Image © DeA Picture Library/Art Resource, NY
Suzanne Valadon, ‘Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte,’ 1913. Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, purchased from the artist, 1937. © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/Image © DeA Picture Library/Art Resource, NY

PHILADELPHIA –This fall, the Barnes Foundation will present Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel, the first exhibition dedicated to the French artist and model Suzanne Valadon at a major US arts institution. It will open on September 26 and continue through January 9, 2022.

Continue reading

Ohio museum acquires important 17th-century portrait miniature

Portrait of Zaga Christ (Sagga Krestos), 1635, Giovanna Garzoni, (Italian, 1600-1670). Watercolor and bodycolor on vellum mounted on card; silver frame is later. Museum Friends Fund. Courtesy of Phillip Mould and Company, London.
Portrait of Zaga Christ (Ṣägga Krǝstos), 1635, Giovanna Garzoni, (Italian, 1600-1670). Watercolor and bodycolor on vellum mounted on card; silver frame is later. Museum Friends Fund. Courtesy of Phillip Mould and Company, London.
Portrait of Zaga Christ (Sagga Krestos), 1635, Giovanna Garzoni, (Italian, 1600-1670). Watercolor and bodycolor on vellum mounted on card; silver frame is later. Museum Friends Fund. Courtesy of Phillip Mould and Company, London.

OBERLIN, Ohio – The Allen Memorial Art Museum’s gallery of 17th- and 18th-century European art has been reimagined to reveal global stories of encounter and exchange. Central to the new installation is a significant acquisition: a portrait of the Ethiopian traveler Zaga Christ by the Italian artist Giovanna Garzoni. Made in 1635, when the two met at the court of the Duke of Savoy in Turin, Italy, Portrait of Zaga Christ is the earliest known European portrait miniature to depict a Black sitter.

Continue reading