Alice Neel's life on canvas gets first Scotland exhibition

Alice Neel's fascinating life is on the canvas for all to see, writes Susan Mansfield

Alice Neels younger son and his wife in Hartley and Ginny, 1970. Picture: Contributed
Alice Neels younger son and his wife in Hartley and Ginny, 1970. Picture: Contributed

In 1955, when America was in the grip of anti-communist paranoia, the FBI interviewed Alice Neel. In her file, she was described as a “romantic Bohemian type communist”, probably guilty of nothing worse than hanging out with the writers and radicals of Greenwich Village. Rumour has it she offered to paint the agents’ portraits. They declined.

That story sums up something about Neel, a defiant non-conformist, committed to her art. By this point, she was in her fifties, having pursued her work for decades with little recognition or financial reward. She was a woman in a world dominated by men, a portrait painter in an art world sold on abstract expressionism and pop art. She was poor and often broken-hearted, sporadically treated for psychiatric illness. But she left a legacy of nearly 3,000 works.

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Only in the 1970s, in her seventies, did she receive anything approaching recognition. Her work has never been shown in Scotland, and for many the Edinburgh Art Festival exhibition at Talbot Rice will be an introduction to it. A selection of late paintings, spaciously hung, and a survey of drawings from more than 50 years occupies both the main gallery and the Playfair Library.

Largely, with Neel, what you get is what you see. Her portraits take you into her world. She painted her friends, family, lovers, and the artists and bohemians in whose circles she moved. Occasionally, there are people she didn’t know, like the striking Girl in a Cafe, with her black bob and toffee-coloured beehive hat, but mostly her subject matter is intimately connected to her.

When she painted portraits, she didn’t do it at a detached distance, she identified herself with the subject. The title of the show comes from something she said: “I know the theory of everything, but when I paint I don’t think of anything except the subject and me.” She seemed to compose her works quickly, instinctively. One subject, feminist art historian Mary Garrard, said Neel stopped her as soon as she arrived at the studio, before she even took off her coat: she had already seen the pose she wanted.

Neel was an empathetic observer of people. She read how her sitters presented themselves, how they occupied space. In Ian and Mary, one of her double portraits, Ian sits confidently, legs akimbo, while Mary looks much more tentative, her legs tucked beneath her on the sofa, but the asymmetrical composition moves her towards the centre. Kanuthia, a black businessman in a pale suit and tie, occupies a chair which is rather too small for him, and seems to be drawing back into it, wary, while trying to maintain a confident exterior. All this, she saw.

Neel was interested in truth. In the last decade of her life, she said: “At least, after my fashion, I told the truth as I perceived it… I did the best and most honest work of which I was capable…” There is an uncompromising truth in her paintings, and never more so than when her gaze is turned to her own family. She painted a body of works featuring her daughters-in-law and their children. In The Family (1980), her daughter Nancy and her three children are grouped together awkwardly. Nancy is almost lost among them – one has to look twice to find her – the youngest child awkwardly straddling her lap.

Ginny and Elizabeth (1976) is a study of mother and child, but this is no idealised Madonna. Ginny kneels on the floor with her toddler, holding her hands ready to catch a baby who seems to pull away towards a bigger world. Her expression is heavy with the cares a mother has for a child beginning to flee her clutches, and at the same time, perhaps, conscious of how she herself is bound to her child.

One could take issue, at times, with the uneven quality of Neel’s application of paint, her tendency to leave in the mistakes and imperfections, or to leave some paintings looking unfinished. In her portrait of Diana Douglas, she paints the face, upper body and one arm fully, leaving the remainder of her sitter as a sketched outline. Yet, the attention is drawn all the more to the details she is giving us.

If her paintings are spontaneous, her drawings are even more so, and more personal, more raw. Here are the moods of her lovers – Sam Brody, Kenneth Doolittle, Jose Santiago Negron; the almost cartoonish sketch of herself and John Rothschild in the bathroom together; the crowded hospital ward where her mother sits, a frail and diminished form, in a wheelchair; the striking Self Portrait Skull (1958) made after a period in a psychiatric hospital, after her affair with Brody ended.

The last picture on the upper level (or the first, depending on which way you travel) is an early watercolour of Riverside Park from the 1920s. It is remarkable, bleakly beautiful, unlike anything else in the show, a legacy of a period of emotional turmoil. It’s a reminder that this show, fine as it is, only scratches the surface. And it leaves one wanting more.

• Until 8 October