Alice Neel Painted Like Actors Act :: Revealing Hidden Truths, Inner Emotional Life


Alice Neel, Famous American Portrait Painteralice-neel-photo

Alice Neel is well-known for her remarkable portraits, for including an acute, psychological accuracy about each person that she painted. Neel had a uncanny gift for looking at her people, perceiving what predominant (and often uncomfortable or negative) feeling they were experiencing in their lives.  She painted each person’s innermost feelings. A technically-skilled painter, so she was able to paint each person in the figurative style: recognizable, physically. But, what’s strikingly remarkable about her work is that she was able to also sense, and paint, the inner emotional life of each person. In each portrait, on a 2 dimensional canvas. Neel painted these portraits, prolifically, throughout her long life. Alice Neel painted her subjects the way actors masterfully play roles, by expressing the psychological traits and inner emotional specificity. It’s the very same type of emotional sensitivity, of intuition, of perception; that actors use to portray characters. In order to make a character truly come to life, an actor must make the obscured, inner life come alive, authentically; expressing the defining, central, organic, emotional truths for each “pretend” character they play.


Audio Clip With Alice Neel, And Others: On Her Artistic Emotional Perception:

Excerpted from the documentary.

As I wrote yesterday, I’ve been on a documentary binge. Alice Neel’s grandson shot a documentary about her life, and the seven decades that she prolifically painted. Before I watched it, I thought: What could be so interesting about Alice Neel’s life, the life of a figurative painter? I was very surprised about what I learned, and what I saw.


Random list of some worthwhile things in this documentary:

1. Her closest family (children) and her friends are the ones sharing about her in this documentary; and all share Alice Neel’s authentic truthful expression of whatever they are talking about. They describe what it is like to be the children, friends, etc of a born artist, that is, someone who “must paint”. Who cherishes the talent they have, and whose identity is primarily based on that gift. And the compulsion to continue to produce art, no matter what the adversity, hardship, convention, etc.

2. I had no idea that Alice Neel was an unrecognized artist for most of her life, until she was elderly. I had assumed that she was always a revered, famous artist. The fact that she was truly struggling for most of her life, as she continued to paint, was not the only surprise; the information of her nearly lifelong poverty, along with the effects of such on her children, as they so specifically describe it…it’s a topic and perspective I’ve never seen before. The idea of the struggling artist: as myth, as romantic ideal; gets a frankly honest examination and revelation. In a specificity as rarely revealed.

3. It was interesting to see that her style of painting, as gifted as it is, was just not fashionable for so much of her life. It’s largely why she painted in obscurity for so long, for decades. Without being able to get exhibited, or sold.

Alice Neel lived during an extremely popular time in America, for art. The artistic taste of the period was for abstract expressionism, whereas Neel painted in a figurative manner.

alice neel portrait of marisol4. Bohemianism is, altogether, a big part of this documentary, covered and revealed accurately, experientially; which is very unusual.

Alice Neel was a a part of the New York art world during the ’60s, the ’70s.  She knew all the Beat Poets and all the well-known, downtown painters of the art scene, at that time, and whose names we all know even today. Neel, herself, lived by the philosophies and credos of the strictest Bohemian culture of the time: eschewing money, and conventionalism, etc. The documentary really shows how that kind of life was lived, in all it’s truth. (The Neel family reality was far different than, say, the popular Kerouac view in his books, and the trends of the times.)

5. The documentary also reveals, strikingly, how Neel’s being a woman and mother affected her career, her life, and the conditions of being so gifted as an artist; and sharing a life with children and the responsibility of them, how both of those roles were compromised to the degree that they only can be when they are both too obviously demanding, to coexist.

6. For all viewers who live an artistic life, there’s lots more in this movie that is quite valuable. As far as artistic interest, and experience, there’s much to relate to. (Some of the hardship is hard to watch.)

Yet, still, Alice Neel was a born artist, compelled to paint, and did prolifically; for seven decades. Yes, by the end she has worldwide recognition. Her success is not the only inspiration in this documentary; her philosophy, and her sharing of it, is too.

7. Alice Neel’s life was committed to truth, and authenticity, in art. This artistic philosophy, and way of living actually, is prevalent throughout the whole film. I found that validating.


[Click here to open the ALICE NEEL documentary on Netflix, in a  new window]

The Alice Neel Documentary Trailer + Another Video From An Exhibit Of Neel’s Work In London

YouTube Preview Image YouTube Preview Image

From Art Critics:

Peter Campbell, London Review Of Books

Painting, Neel said, was ‘something she had to do’, there was no other way of living, and for most of her life it didn’t make her much of one. … In her best pictures faces are loaded with information about attitudes and emotions… demand that you understand how they feel… The 1966 portrait of her son Hartley shows him, hands joined over his head, looking straight at you while sitting slumped back in a chair. He had started medical school and had told Neel at the time she was painting it that he could not bear dissecting a corpse and would have to give it up. In the end he got his degree, but the sense of crisis is powerful. You wouldn’t be surprised if you were told he had been crying. The 1958 portrait of his father, Sam Brody, was painted in the year he and Neel ended a long, sporadic relationship. Arms crossed, eyes not meeting yours (hers), a strong crease created between frowning eyebrows: you read a troubled man who could also be trouble.

Lawrence Campbell, ArtNews

Miss Neel seems to detect a hidden weakness in her sitters which she drags out, yelping, into the clear glare of day.

hartley neel





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One Response to Alice Neel Painted Like Actors Act :: Revealing Hidden Truths, Inner Emotional Life
  1. ssmall
    April 29, 2011 | 3:12 am

    Great I saw an Alice Neel show Two years ago and loved it I will be anxious to put it in my Netflix queue. Also love that guy whose painting got so much money when he was alive. Some dark figures– I’ll think of his name in a minute.
    Sandy Small

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