IN A 1978 INTERVIEW, Alice Neel recalled that an acquaintance once approvingly told her she painted “like a man,” but the artist herself rejected the very notion of gendered painting. “I don’t feel that there is definite female painting,” she said. “I don’t feel that you could tell a man’s painting from a woman’s painting.” Transcending any essentialist approach to gender, her portraits of mothers register a complex ambivalence that resonates poignantly with anyone who has ever experienced the terror of keeping another being alive. In spite of her resistance to gendering the creative process, Neel’s vision is inextricable from her mothering of both paintings and children. By imaging radical confrontations with others who are also extensions of the self, Neel captures the wonder of procreation and the inclusive profundity of caregiving. This kind of mothering is more than a recurring motif in Neel’s work; it is a way of seeing. In her portraits of pregnant and postpartum women, Neel shows that the body is a changeling vessel, sometimes bloated, sometimes tired, anxiously attuned to the other’s gaze, and always in the thick of relationality, even when alone. As early as 1930, when she painted Degenerate Madonna, Neel had rejected idealized images of mother and child in which the labor of parenting has been rendered as immaculate as Jesus’s conception.
Neel envisions not just all of her mothers, but all of her others in their vulnerability and ragged perseverance, her famous blue line limning the gestural idiosyncrasies her subjects adopt to survive. It is as if Neel’s paintings returned to the specular scene that Jacques Lacan famously analyzes in his essay on the mirror stage. In Lacan’s account, the infant only achieves self-recognition after being held up by their mother in front of the looking glass day after day for many months. The revelation of the startling coherence of their surprisingly bounded body catalyzes the development of the ego (“That’s me! I am that!”) and the accompanying recognition “I am not that.” By which they mean “I am not her,” the mother. (Lacan myopically presumes that the parent who gives birth and who performs these rituals is always female.) Yet the inception of ego in and as an image is a fraught business. For although the infant appears far more coherent than experience might lead a fledgling consciousness to expect, the mediating force of the image cleaves the very ego it births. To be one with one’s image is to be inevitably doubled and divided. The primary recognition of the self is simultaneous with the discovery of one’s alienation from it.
But Lacan forgets about, or maybe is just not interested in, the mother holding up the infant—what she sees in the euphoric scene of egoic recognition unfolding in her arms. Neel doesn’t forget. The mother doesn’t disappear just because the child may become blinded to her. The mother sees. She watches the other shed the carapace of her skin and try on the contours of a new self. In nearly all of her portraits, Neel becomes the mirror into which her subjects look. In Nancy and Olivia, 1967, Alice sees her daughter-in-law Nancy and paints her in a way that recognizes the renewed drama and crisis that motherhood brings. It is not only the infant who is surprised to encounter their uncannily bounded self. Yet what did Neel’s daughters-in-law—painted by the artist with expressions that telegraph I am overwhelmed—make of their mother-in-law, a bohemian who had married a Cuban painter and moved to Havana before settling in Harlem, who had four children with three different men, lost two of them, and raised the other two in such poverty that her older son suffered from malnutrition?
As her own kin must have known well, Neel was intimately familiar with the way in which precarity challenges the capacity of maternal protection. In The Spanish Family, 1943, she depicts a shadowed mother, Margarita Negrón, surrounded by three of her children. Neel made this work not long after Margarita’s husband, Carlos Santiago Negrón, was diagnosed with tuberculosis; Harlem, where the family lived, was one of the worst TB hot spots in New York. Neel eschewed the universalizing humanism of white progressivism that oversimplified the very real effects of socially constructed differences. While her gaze is not that of the sympathetic yet pathologizing outsider, it doesn’t presume the absolute intimacy of the insider, either. Carlos, whom Neel painted in T.B. Harlem, 1940, was the brother of Neel’s partner, José Santiago Negrón, a Puerto Rican singer and guitarist with whom she moved from Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem in 1938, just before the birth of their son, Richard. Although they never married, Negrón’s family was Neel’s own. Yet all of her pictures have this simultaneous quality of familial intimacy and observational amplitude. For a less expansive artist, this might be a contradiction, but for Neel, this simultaneity was the very definition of looking. Whether they were lovers, neighbors, family, friends, acquaintances, allies, or rivals, all of Neel’s subjects were worthy of the same nuanced attention.
As we may glean from her portraits of individuals whose lives are visibly complicated by their gender, race, ethnicity, class, and neighborhood, Neel was attuned to intersectionality avant la lettre. Over the years, her vision became increasingly attuned to women in their multiplicity. Her portrait Linda Nochlin and Daisy, 1973, depicts its intent adult subject as an intellectual, a feminist, a critic, a woman, and a mother simultaneously. One protective hand rests on the thigh of her small daughter, a ginger-haired doppelgänger of her mother already dressed in a feminist pantsuit. Although we don’t see Neel, this is a portrait of two women who spent their lives devoted to seeing and making art history anew, engaged in the act of looking at each other. The portrait captures more than the recognition of camaraderie and complicity between a Great Woman Painter and the groundbreaking feminist critic who demanded to know why there have been no great women artists. Nochlin insisted on making the contributions of women artists legible in the male-dominated genealogy of Western art history. Neel’s portrait of the “engaged feminist intellectual” likewise insists that we recognize Nochlin not only as a thinker but also as a mother. But the painting implies, too, that we recognize the unseen painter as the very answer to the question Nochlin’s famed essay poses, which is, of course, a trick question. There have been great women artists—though they have been rendered invisible.
Yet I can’t help but wonder about Neel’s charged investment in paintings of mothers and daughters. Her first daughter died of diphtheria before her first birthday; her second daughter, Isabetta, was virtually kidnapped when Neel’s then partner, the Cuban painter Carlos Enriquez, took the child back to Cuba. Gutted by despair, Neel was hospitalized after trying to commit suicide. She only saw Isabetta three more times. During one of those visits, in 1934, Neel painted her six-year-old daughter, naked, as children are wont to be. The portrait is provocative. Far more than her other portraits of children from this era, it captures the child’s defiance of the painter’s scrutiny. With her determined hands on her tiny hips, her vulva exposed, and her hair blown back into sculpture, the six-year-old Isabetta is a force of nature portrayed with an absolute lack of sentimentality. Neel sees as a mother who recognizes that our children never fully belong to us, and we only partially to them. “In the beginning I didn’t want children, I just got them,” Neel once said. “I loved Isabetta, of course I did, but I wanted to paint.”
In Neel’s portrait Carmen and Judy, 1972, we are again confronted by a daughter’s exposed body and raw vulnerability. In this tender portrait of maternal love and filial need, the infant’s exposed pudendum is mirrored by the mother’s exposed breast. The child’s hunger is answered by the mother’s sustenance. Yet the painting also suggests the limits of this synchronicity. You don’t need to be a mother to feel the insatiability of need and the heartbreaking insufficiency of the mortal body that Neel’s portrait reveals. As Hilton Als writes, “There is not one of us who has not been Judy—life has harmed us, injured the brain and heart, and yet there is the softness of the woman who holds us. As she does so, we imagine she holds up the world too.” Yet care is not equivalent to possession and is certainly no guarantee of protection. As Neel knew so well, sometimes our children slip away from us, even become unknown.
Neel’s portraits of relationality are not just for other mothers but speak to and include us all. Endless need and poignant insufficiency. Multiplicity and defiant self-reliance. Self-fashioning and its seams. Intimate entwining. Solitude in togetherness. If Neel’s vision of complex personhood was indelibly impacted by her own maternal loss, then perhaps this intimate estrangement is what makes room for us and allows for our simultaneous identification and disidentification with her subjects. We are all Judy, none of us is Judy, only Judy is Judy, and we only know Judy through Carmen’s love for her, which is to say not at all, which is only part of what Alice Neel gives us here. “A face that only a mother could love” was every face that Neel painted.
Neel’s irradiating eye is legible not only in her portraits of mothers and children. Take her haunting, unfinished portrait Black Draftee (James Hunter), 1965. Neel never completed the painting because Hunter never returned to her studio for a second sitting; one presumes he was sent off to Vietnam. Although his face is rendered exquisitely, the unfinished canvas speaks to how much we don’t know about this young Black man whose control over his own body was colonized by a racist military state. His expression registers poignantly, but his body is quite literally missing in action. Neel doesn’t try to fill in the gaps. Instead, she allows them to register as signs of the chasm between what we see and what we understand. Though effaced by history, his life is nonetheless more complex than any frame an artist could put around it. “People come first,” said Neel, as the exhibition of her work at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art insistently reiterates, but people are more than we can ever know or need them to be. We are all disappearing in the way of all flesh, but we are not all James Hunter. We are not all casualties of state violence. Some of us get to live—and look.
“Alice Neel: People Come First” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through August 1; travels to Guggenheim Bilbao, September 17, 2021–January 23, 2022; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, March 12–July 10, 2022.
Ara Osterweil is a writer and painter and a professor of world cinema and cultural studies at McGill University in Montreal.