Alice Neel Exposed

Andréa Fernandes

Exactly 109 years ago today, the American artist Alice Neel (1900-1984) was born. Neel was everything an artist should be—controversial, bohemian, and interesting. Although she's famous—or infamous—for her nude portraits, including "Kitty Pearson" (1973), shown on the right, she also painted portraits of her neighborhoods, such as "Dominican Boys on 108th Street" (1955), shown on the left.

1. Alice Neel had four children, two girls and two boys, with three different men. Her first, daughter Santillana, died from diphtheria just before turning one. Isabetta, her second daughter, was taken to Cuba by her father when she was about two years old; Neel only saw her daughter during a few rare visits. In between her daughters and her sons, Neel suffered a miscarriage. Neel raised her youngest two children, Richard and Hartley, on her own.

2. Men were a constant in Neel's life, but they often caused additional pain for the artist. After her husband, Carlos Enríquez, went to his home country of Cuba with their daughter Isabetta on a supposedly temporary trip, Neel never saw him again (though they never actually divorced). Jose Santiago, the father of Neel's son Richard, had left his wife and child for Neel, but then left Neel for a saleswoman from Lord & Taylor. Kenneth Doolittle, another lover, attacked Neel's artwork in a fit of rage in 1934, burning more than 300 of her drawings and watercolors and slashing more than 50 paintings.

3. From 1951 to 1955, Neel was under investigation by the FBI, who described her as a "romantic Bohemian type Communist." Two agents visited Neel's home in 1955 to interview her. After the interview, Neel supposedly asked the two agents to sit for portraits. Unlike the Fuller Brush man she painted in 1965, they declined.

4. Neel was underappreciated for years, but by the end of her life, she had gained quite a bit of fame and notoriety. President Jimmy Carter presented her with the National Women's Caucus for Art award for outstanding achievement in 1979. In 1981, she became the first living American artist to have a major retrospective exhibition in Moscow. She was commissioned to paint portraits for the cover of TIME magazine at least twice: Kate Millett (feminist activist) in 1970 and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1982.

5. In 1959, Neel appeared alongside Allen Ginsberg in "Pull My Daisy" at the specific request of the director, Robert Frank. On February 7, 1985, at a memorial service for Neel, Ginsberg performed the first public reading of his poem "White Shroud."

6. One of Neel's most famous portraits is her 1970 painting of Andy Warhol, complete with the scars from when he was almost killed. Somehow, even though Warhol was "notoriously shy of his body," Neel managed to get him out of his clothes, at least from the waist up.

Larger versions of "Dominican Boys on 108th Street" and "Kitty Pearson" are available. Fans should check out the Alice Neel official site; the film "Alice Neel" by her grandson, Andrew; John Perreault's essay on posing for Neel; this excerpt from an ART/new york program on Alice Neel; and the artwork of her granddaughter, Elizabeth Neel. "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.