Art Annotations

Neel, Alice

On-Line Art
Art FormOil on canvas
KeywordsAging, Body Self-Image, Individuality

In 1980, four years before her death at age 84, Alice Neel painted her first self-portrait. Grasping her paintbrush, the naked artist looks directly at the viewer without concern for pleasing. Bravely, she invites us to meet her fully in this deeply honest and vulnerable space.

The hard vertical bars of the chair encircle her soft and abundant flesh. One arm is raised in readiness for work, the other hangs limp, mimicking the heavy droop of her breasts and stomach. Eyeglasses hint at frailty yet proclaim her as one who sees. These opposing elements mark her singularity.


As a painter of portraits, Alice Neel (1900-1984) was able to express the complex, individual personality. Her work has inspired others to call her "a compulsive truth-teller" (Chicago, J. & Lucie-Smith, E. Women and Art. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1999, p.124).

Challenging the traditional idealization of the subject, she incorporated people's eccentricities and imperfections, allowing them to arrange themselves in ways that naturally and more accurately rendered emotion and character. In the late 1970s Neel wrote, "Every person is a new universe unique with its own laws emphasizing some belief or phase of life immersed in time and rapidly passing by." [Hills, P. Alice Neel. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983, p.185]

As an activist for women's rights during the 1960's, Neel pursued art as a pathway to greater freedom. In her self-portrait she responds to the traditional idealized female nude with her own form--one that celebrates the soul's beauty rather than the beauty of surfaces and that values self-assertion over demure passivity.Mary Winkler writes of the work, "Traditional assumptions about female agency and female beauty seem shoddy under the honest, sardonic gaze of an old woman who wills herself to know herself--naked." "She is as she is." (Dittrich, L. Ed. Ten Years of Medicine and the Arts. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Medical Colleges, 2001, p. 127)

Contrast Neel's self-portrait with Gauguin's symbolized self-portrait (Self-Portrait with Halo), or with the serious and satiric self portraits of Elizabeth Layton (see annotation of The Life and Art of Elizabeth "Grandma" Layton ).

Location of OriginalThe National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Alternate SourceAlice Neel. Ann Temkin, Ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, with the Philadelphia Museum of Art) 2000, plate 72. Or Dittrich, L. Ed. Ten Years of Medicine and the Arts. (Washington, D.C.: Association of American Medical Colleges) 2001, p. 126.
MiscellaneousDated 1980. The Neel estate has a comprehensive website: with detailed biographical notes and a gallery of many paintings.
Annotated by Bertman, Sandra L.
Date of Entry 05/12/04
Last Revised 02/18/12