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Alice Neel, “Georgie Arce No. 2” (1955)
Alice Neel, “Georgie Arce No. 2” (1955), Oil on canvas, 76.2 × 55.9 cm Framed: 83.5 × 62.9 cmCollection of Lonti Ebers © The Estate of Alice Neel, Bilbao, 2021

Alice Neel’s portraits are an ode to human vulnerability and resilience

A retrospective at The Guggenheim Bilbao explores the late American painter’s work by shining a light on key figures that shaped it

“For me, people come first,” Alice Neel once said. “I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.” The great American artist – best known for her figurative paintings – had an extraordinary ability to illuminate the vulnerability and singularity of her sitters. Her tender, emotive portraits are celebrated for the nuanced and profound physiological and emotional insight she cast upon her subjects. 

The aptly titled upcoming exhibition, Alice Neel: People Come First, opens at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao on September 17. Beginning with some of her earliest surviving paintings made in the 1920s, this comprehensive show surveys Neel’s entire career and includes some of her most famed and recognisable works. 

Many of the paintings on display date from her time in Spanish Harlem, an underprivileged district of New York which Neel called home from 1938 to 1962. By choosing to paint portraits of her neighbours, she shone a light on the lives of everyday people who might ordinarily not be met with such deep interest and curiosity by the outside world. During these years, Neel created a body of portraiture suffused with profound empathy for the hardships and heartbreaks of this disadvantaged community. While never romanticising the plight of her subjects, she conveys a deep respect for the pride and resilience of the people she paints. One particularly moving portrait, “Carmen and Judy” (1972) depicts a tiny baby girl pressed against her mother’s breast yet not nursing. She died a few days later. 

Motherhood is a recurring motif in Neel’s work. Many of the paintings in People Come First depict various stages of maternal life and no aspect of this complex subject matter is idealised by the painter. From the pregnant body, infant mortality, and the struggle to retain one’s autonomy, Neel’s depiction of the strain and challenges faced by women with children is unflinching. 

The exhibition attests not only to Neel’s love of New Yorkers but of New York itself – her home from 1927 onwards. People Come First includes a selection of Neel’s cityscapes, including a particularly evocative painting from 1959 called “Central Park”. Here, she seems to perfectly distil the distinct atmosphere of the world-famous park on a bright winter’s day as the sun glares through the bare trees and a couple of diminutive figures stand at the foot of a vast set of steps, dwarfed by the scale of the huge inner-city park. 

Along with painting these scenic views of NYC, Neel also captured the city’s volatile political upheavals. “Nazis Murder Jews” was painted in 1936 – three years before the outbreak of the second world war. Neel depicts demonstrators gathering at night with placards in the streets to protest the increasingly antisemitic policies of the Nazi regime.

Alice Neel: People Come First is a testament to Neel’s tremendous skill and compassion. Taking in her portraits, you never feel that she’s trying to impose a comfortable narrative or trope upon any of her sitters. Her paintings allow space for the ambiguity and complexity of the human condition. When you encounter one of Alice Neel’s portraits, you really feel that you’ve met someone and shared an intimate moment with the person looking back at you from the canvas.  

Alice Neel: People Come First is at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao from September 17 2021 until February 6 2022