Alice Neel on painting, money, and Russian caviar

Notes on the brilliant and idiosyncratic American artist

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Byron and Shelley’s daily routines circa 1822.

Alice Neel (1900–1984)

These last several weeks, I have not felt too jealous of all my friends and family members who have been getting vaccinated while I’m still waiting for the shot (soon!)—but I have felt jealous of those friends in New York who have taken advantage of loosening Covid restrictions to go see Alice Neel: People Come First at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After a year of barely seeing other humans in the flesh, how glorious to walk up the steps of the Met and find your way to dozens of Neel’s vibrant, fleshy portraits, to see all those faces and bodies on full, unself-conscious display. Actually, it sounds a little overwhelming—but in a way that would invigorate the system, like jumping into an icy pool after spending too long in a confining sauna.

In Daily Rituals: Women at Work, I wrote a single paragraph about Neel’s daily painting life, and, to be honest, I never felt totally satisfied with how it came out. Here I thought I’d share some more of what interests me about Neel and her working life:

From the WPA to Welfare

Neel was one of a number of New York artists who were paid by the federal government to make art during the Great Depression. Starting in 1933, she received $26.50 a week from the Public Works of Art Project, which was soon replaced by FDR’s Works Project Administration. “It wasn’t a very big income but it gave me enough to live and paint on,” she said.

Neel stayed on the WPA until 1942 (it was terminated the following year); after that, she and her two young sons lived on welfare, which Neel considered “sort of an extension of the WPA,” according to one of her sons (as quoted in Phoebe Hoban’s excellent biography Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty). She was proud of her ability to work the system in order to continue painting full-time, rather than having to sacrifice her art-making for a paying job.

Damaged and Mutilated

The secret to Neel’s artistic success was, according to her, an ability to capture her sitters’ individual psychology on the canvas. “If I had been a psychiatrist, I would be wealthy,” she joked in a 1978 interview. “As it is, in the process of painting someone, I reveal not only what shows but what doesn’t show, but what is also characteristic.”

Along these same lines, there’s a wonderful exchange in an interview between Neel and Johnny Carson, which you can watch on YouTube:

Carson: You said in your book here … you didn’t like to paint what you called “ordinary people.” You liked to paint people who’d been through the rat race of life a little bit. Why is that?

Neel: I’ll tell you why. Cézanne, that great, famous artist, said: “I like to paint people that have grown old naturally in the country.” And I could say: I like to paint people who have been ruined by the rat race in New York City.

Carson: You find they have more character, more…

Neel: Well, they’re damaged and they’re mutilated, but they’re still kicking.

Carson [laughing]: You like to work with damaged goods, is that it?

Neel: Well, so many of us are damaged, aren’t we?

Carson, looking uncomfortable, quickly changes the subject. (You can watch the exchange below, beginning at 1:12.)

Breakfast of Champions?

According to the MoMA Artists’ Cookbook, Neel’s breakfast circa 1977 was “orange juice, Brie cheese, whole wheat bread, black coffee, and Russian caviar ladled from a five-pound can.” The caviar detail sounds like a joke, but it wasn’t—Neel loved the stuff and made it part of her regular diet, at least when she could afford it.

Not surprisingly, Neel was not a fan of diets and dieting culture. “You know what makes the American woman stupid?” Neel asked.

Always talking about dieting. Who cares, anyway? I couldn’t diet. For one thing, I’m too nervous. For another, food comforts me. I always overate. I am seventy-seven years old and five feet six inches tall. I weigh 175 pounds. I am supposed to weigh 155, and I am not supposed to have many of the things I love. But I eat chocolate and caviar. I traded a painting for caviar. Now I eat it like other people eat potatoes.

Neither was Neel interested in cooking. “I don’t do much cooking,” she said. “I’m an artist; I have privileges, you see, that only men had in the past.”

Alice Neel: People Come First is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until August 1. Maybe I’ll be able to make it to New York before then???


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