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Neel Life Stories

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Margaret Evans
Director of the James Marston Fitch
Charitable Foundation

When I first met Alice, it was at a show at the Whitney -- she was a friend of my husband's. I was pregnant, and she said, "When are you going to have the baby? Don't you want a keepsake?"

My portrait took only two or three sittings. I was eight months pregnant, so she wanted to make it easy for me. We took little rests. It was fascinating to be around her -- she had interesting opinions about everything. She would talk about other people she had painted; she would talk about her life; she would talk about politics. Alice called me after I gave birth and wanted to know if the babies were bald -- she wanted to paint them immediately.

She made me feel very comfortable. She used to say, "Doesn't she have nice small breasts?" Oh, another thing Alice said: "She's very comfortable in her body." That made me feel good, too.

I heard that she wasn't happy with my portrait, that she thought something was missing. But I think she captured something going on that I didn't show. There's something that she caught -- that I was totally expectant. People who see the portrait ask me about the mirror. They say, "Oh, you look so much older in the mirror." I wasn't all that placid. You know, there's some anxiety in getting ready to give birth, and she caught that.

John Cheim
Co-owner, Cheim & Read Gallery

Alice painted me when I was 26, in 1979. I met her in 1977 when I was working at the Robert Miller Gallery. I pursued her and put her in a group show at Miller. She enjoyed the chase.

Alice had a very sweet grandmotherly appearance, but she could be quite playful and provocative. She would try to find some soft spot in her sitter -- to get the real person out of them. She would tease you and watch your reaction. From that, she would compose a portrait. After the first few minutes, she would slip into almost a trancelike state. Her mouth would fall open, her concentration was so great.

She would refer to people as various kinds of animals. She always said my hands looked like veal chops.

Linda Nochlin
Art historian

I was active in the women's movement at the time, and Alice Neel felt a lot of empathy with the women's movement. She'd always been a kind of rebel, and this was something she believed in. We talked back and forth about her painting my portrait. I never found her abrasive, but I could see that she might be. She was a very competitive person -- a fighter.

Anyway, she asked me to come and pose, and I don't know how my daughter got into it, but she did. It was very fortunate, because my daughter is definitely the star of the portrait.

We went to her place on 107th Street. I think we did about six or seven sittings for the portrait. I had to sit there holding my daughter -- it is very hard to pose with a child. Alice told stories, and she was really terrific with Daisy. We bribed her with food, but I told Alice we couldn't give her sweets, so she went out and got all kinds of health-food snacks. She was very thoughtful in that way.

Sitting for her was the usual torture of having to sit still. But she was fascinating -- in a way sort of incoherent, because she was concentrating. But bits of her life would come out, here and there a little story, an opinion -- all mixed together.

My mother was horrified by the portrait. She said, "You don't look so anxious and so worried in real life." I'm rather a smiling type, actually. But Alice painted everyone like that. In a way, all her portraits embodied the anxieties of their times. They're portraits of a universal existential anxiety. But they also embody, on a more literal level, the relative painfulness of sitting for a portrait.

She had a very definite style; everyone looks contemporary, and each person looks anxious in their own way. I think she was wonderful on children. She makes them the tense, intense little kids that modern urban children are, no roly-poly dumplings at all. Fraught. Unsentimental.


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