Alice Neel: Women drawn

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(Host) The artist Alice Neel’s drawings of women are being featured in a show in
Burlington this summer. Commentator Lois Eby has some thoughts about Neel’s work and her contribution to contemporary images of women.

(Eby) Shortly before her death in 1984, the artist Alice Neel spoke at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson. Though in her early 80s and in a wheelchair, Neel conveyed the vitality, blunt honesty, and commitment to painting for which she was famous. For younger women artists like myself, with few role models in the art world, Alice Neel provided an inspiring example of what it takes to stay the course in a challenging field.

Now, 20 years later, the Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts on Church Street in Burlington is showing Neel’s work through July 16. “Alice Neel: Women Drawn” focuses primarily on drawings of women, but the show also includes several paintings. Elizabeth Neel, Alice Neel’s granddaughter, who is also an artist, has written an insightful essay for the catalog. She points out how the confident contour lines of the drawings are retained in the paintings, helping to give them a fresh, direct immediacy usually associated only with drawing.

Neel was a world renowned artist. Toward the end of her life, she built a studio in Lamoille County near her son and daughter-in-law and their family. But she spent many years living and working in Spanish Harlem in New York; her first marriage was to a Cuban artist. In all of her work, the subjects in her paintings reflect more than one society or class; she sought out and painted people who interested her, among them Latina women, white artists and feminists, African-American women and children, and family members.

The show and the catalog explore Neel’s relationship to women throughout her lifetime, which spanned much of the 20th century, with its profound social and political upheavals. Neel was a rebellious, original personality from very early on, determined to paint, defiant of social conventions, and sympathetic to the poor and disregarded. Though one can recognize an Alice Neel portrait anywhere, I am struck – seeing many together – with how she saw women as individuals. One woman is confident and bold, while another
suffers, and a third is confused or troubled.

Neel has a distinctive line, especially in her treatment of eyes, yet there are no stereotypes among these women, and no idealized male images of women’s bodies or their souls – just honest, sympathetic portrayals of individual, real women, whether pregnant, with children or a partner, or alone.

As an artist still living in the shadow of the public’s love for the French Impressionists, I especially delight in Alice Neel’s saying that as an art student in 1921 she didn’t want to be taught Impressionism. “I didn’t see life as a picnic on the grass,” she said. Such insight into the years ahead for herself and her century is typical of Alice Neel. It is why the women she painted seem so entirely a part of our own time.

This is Lois Eby.

Lois Eby is a painter who comments on the arts, women’s issues, and civil rights.

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