Alice Neel’s best portraits, as chosen by painter Chantal Joffe


© The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy of the Alice Neel Estate

Alice is 80 when she takes this selfie. Compare it to Lucian Freud’s late self-portrait where he stands naked, brandishing a brush, looking almost boxer-like, all ego. And then little Alice sits in her chair, her feet a little twisted, her flesh hanging from her arms. But she also has her brush and rag, so she’s a fighter in other ways too. There is no vanity here, no flattery, but as a painter she finds true beauty in her thick white hair and bright pink cheeks. She is sedentary but very active when painting. She has almost left her body and watches him distantly. She enjoys the line of her navel and her swollen ankles. She conveys the age-spotted softness of her skin in just a few lines. The economy of her painting is exceptional.


© The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy of the Alice Neel Estate

Is it Alice’s comfortable motherliness – she is 70 when she paints this portrait – that allows Warhol to be so vulnerable with her? He lets her paint him shirtless, his chest bared, his eyes closed as if he couldn’t bear her scrutiny. She doesn’t shy away from painting what is there: the delicacy of those scars and the line of his breasts, his long brown shoes and the odd old man’s pants. It’s so far from how Warhol presented himself, all hidden away with wigs and makeup and turtlenecks.

I know how it feels as a painter to sit with someone and see their weaknesses. Alice never tries to make things pretty. Her gaze is full of love and compassion and honesty. This is a difficult thing. The moment you turn the painting over and your sitter sees it, people flinch. That can be difficult because as a painter you fall in love with everyone you paint.

No one painted or saw Warhol like this. It’s not a cruel painting, but it must have been a tough painting for Warhol.


© The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy of the Alice Neel Estate

I love that Alice, even when painting influential figures in the art world, cannot betray her own honesty as a painter. Linda Nochlin is a great feminist art historian, but she also looks a bit like a school mom here. You know this woman. She’s trying to look glamorous, but she’s got this fidgety little kid with her. Her hand is holding the child, trying to keep him on the sofa. It’s touching – we are so exposed through our relationships with our children.

At this point, Alice has been living the truth and trying to be one person and one painter and one mother, and Linda is sitting there trying to somehow tie it all together. I think Alice is the first painter to show us this from the inside. In a mother and child scene by Renoir, for example, we have a completely different perspective.

There’s a fierce intelligence about Linda. It’s like challenging Alice. She says: “I’m a critic, I’m a writer. Make a great painting out of it.” I’m really impressed with Alice Neel’s ability to keep all of that in play.


© The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy of the Alice Neel Estate

I’m a shy painter. Alice was never shy. She takes a close look and paints the art critic from eyebrow to toe with great precision. His body, all the hair, the warmth. The traces of his tan. His masculinity and his vulnerability. She sees him whole and we experience both his vanity and her appreciation for him. He is full of confidence, and that makes him more vulnerable than the vulnerable people she paints. She loves his beauty, but she also gently laughs at him. She takes a little piss. You can paint people who feel beautiful with a kind of impunity that you can’t paint more insecure people with.

It’s strange to think about that encounter. Alice is 72 when she paints him and he is young lying on this bed like a big redhead cat. His penis is so real in this painting, the weight of his balls. The sweet old lady never flinches. People underestimated Alice and this allowed her to paint some extraordinary paintings.


© The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy of the Alice Neel Estate

Alice defines very precisely the contrasting characters of these two girls, the one bent forward and the shy, more stern one who sits upright with her hands clasped in her lap. Also, it’s a very specific age for girls; She shows you the gusset of her pantyhose without really wanting to.

I like that Alice shows us the individuals within the larger picture of privileged college girls in the 1960’s. She conjures up the time brilliantly. It’s like a scene The graduate. I grew up in the 1970’s and these are people I would have looked at. The clothes are so expressive, they are as important as with a Goya or a Rembrandt.


© The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy of the Alice Neel Estate

I assume this is Margaret Evans’ first child. She has this look of fear and excitement, of shimmering innocence. She has no idea what is to come, because only through experience can one understand some things in life. Alice paints her with compassion and detachment: she knows exactly what Margaret Evans is about to do. The reflection behind her has a darkness like she’s a little older there and Alice sees the future when she actually has the baby – the exhaustion.

It’s exciting to see a pregnant woman drawn by someone who has been pregnant and knows what it feels like to be in that body. The last time I painted a pregnant woman, late last year, I saw the baby’s elbow brushing her stomach. Suddenly I remembered this feeling of being inhabited. But Margaret is also mysterious. Pregnant women are so self-contained in their relationship with the infant; You have a secret that none of us have. In a way, painting someone is a meeting between two people, a confrontation. And I understand that with this portrait. Margaret is ready, she stands her ground.


© The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy of the Alice Neel Estate

The baby looks into her mother’s face while Carmen looks at us, one hand holds the baby’s hand and protects her body. Hands are always very meaningful in Alice’s paintings. The brightly patterned dress is emblematic of the 1970s and contrasts with the pathos of the scene: the unwell baby, the sadness and courage and tiredness of the mother. There’s a weird look on her face, she lets us watch, but at the same time she says, “I’m not sorry, I’m fine.”

This child is so vulnerable and Alice’s own story is omnipresent. In my opinion the child is also her own little daughter, Santillana, when she lost her to diphtheria. Painting this painting forces Alice to travel back in time: it’s the 1970s and Santillana died in 1927. Alice inhabits Carmen as much as she looks at her. For the artist, too, painting is like a truth serum; Your own feelings always come out.

Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle can be seen at the Barbican, London from February 16th to May 21st. The companion book Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle is published by Prestel

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