Due to family responsibilities, I’m limited in my travel these days. Therefore I’m especially grateful when the art comes to me. A show of the work of the famous American painter Alice Neel (1900-1984) recently opened at the Orange County Museum of Art. Called “It Feels Like Home,” it includes forty paintings of her family, friends, and local neighborhoods. There were also a few portraits of people outside her family circle. I went with my friend Sally Stein, a historian of photography and a photographer herself, who documented our visit.
Neel is most famous for her portraits. She painted almost all of them in her New York apartment, which doubled as her studio. On close inspection, you can see the same furniture pieces reappearing in the paintings. Nothing escaped her notice, not even pets. I was most inspired by her portraits of older women, in which clothes were just as important as faces.
The painting above, The Baron’s Aunt, is an example of how clothing influenced her portraits. While painting a picture of Baron Erik von Anckarström (a man so obscure even Google has not found him), she noticed his aunt who accompanied him to the sitting. According to the description of this painting from the exhibit “Painted Truths,” Neel asked the aunt back for a portrait of her own, asking her to wear the same clothes. In my view, the dynamic print of her outfit enlivens her face.
Over the years, Neel painted many portraits of her mother, Alice Concross Hartley Neel (1866-1954). The painting above was made just two years before her death. Neel spares us none of the debilitating effects of aging. Her mother appears to have no teeth, her hands look arthritic, and her face is lined with wrinkles. Although she wears the common attire of the aged, a heavy sweater and thick blanket, we see a bit of a print at her neck. The dark colors make a somber impression, but that triangle of color hints at her mother’s earlier life.
What do Neel’s portrait tell me about women aging? That it is precisely our wrinkles and our unique clothing choices that make us interesting.