How Alice Neel’s Sharp, Compassionate Eye Painted Harlem | The Atlantic

The artist’s portraits of neighbors, icons, and strangers show a keen and democratic attention to detail.


“Black Spanish-American Family,” 1950 (David Zwirner)

“Black Spanish-American Family,” 1950 (David Zwirner)

When, in 1938, Alice Neel decided to relocate from Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem with José Negrón, a musician and her then-boyfriend, she was making a bold yet potentially career-destroying move. During the early ’30s, Neel had participated in New York’s first open-air exhibitions, held in Washington Square, which had begun to put the city on the map as a hotbed of abstract art—and had befriended artists like Joseph Solman, who would go on to found The Ten, a prominent group of expressionist painters.

In addition to being part of the decade’s zeitgeist as led by downtown artists, Neel’s own star was ascendant: In 1932, the Philadelphia Inquirer had written that her paintings “reveal[ed] the possession of interpretive gifts out of the ordinary,” while at the American Artists’ Congress exhibition in 1936, her work was singled out for recognition in the New York World Telegram. Why then, her peers might have wondered, would an artist who was just beginning to garner critical attention shun the New York art world’s epicenter for a poorer neighborhood that few knew or cared about?

Read more: How Alice Neel’s Sharp, Compassionate Eye Painted Harlem | The Atlantic

Related: Alice Neel’s Love of Harlem and the Neighbors She Painted There | NY Times

UC - Alice Neel - Horace Cayton

Horace Cayton, from 1949. (Estate of Alice Neel, David Zwirner, New York/London)

UC - Alice Neel - Indian Woman

Alice Neel’s 1966 painting of a South Asian woman, her mauve sari covered with periwinkle diamonds, is among two dozen portraits in the show “Alice Neel: Uptown” at David Zwirner gallery. (Estate of Alice Neel, David Zwirner, New York/London; Private Collection, Miami)

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