“I believe what I am is a humanist. That’s the way I see the world.” Alice Neel’s socially committed practice, her near six-decades long career and considerable output, is inseparable from the way she sees the world, her radical life. In her youth, following graduation from art school, Neel moved to Havana, Cuba, with her first husband. Here, her political sensibilities were nourished by a bourgeoning, and left-leaning, intellectual and artistic avant-garde. Back in New York City she enrolls in the so-called “easel division” of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency initiated by the Federal administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt to combat the Great Depression. The agency provides employment for artists; Neel benefits from the scheme for close to ten years. Her commitment to the cause translates to membership of the Communist Party of America (CPUSA). “Nazis Murder Jews” (ca. 1936) depicts a torchlight procession through the streets of New York City organized by the CPUSA, an event Neel herself attended. It is a rare example of an American artist protesting the rise of fascism in Europe prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. In the foreground of the work, holding the torchlight, is Sid Gotcliffe, fellow WPA member and an artist friend she painted in a namesake portrait from 1958. Her “The Death of Mother Bloor” (ca. 1951) shows the funeral scene of famed leader of the CPUSA, Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor, an outspoken advocate for the full enfranchisement of women, and union broker. Neel’s Left politics and continued association with radical thinkers brings her under FBI surveillance. She is interviewed by the Bureau at the height of McCarthyism. Her painting “Mike Gold” (1952) features Itzik Granich, pen-name Mike Gold, a poet, as well as editor of a number of publications devoted to working class issues, including the journal Mases & Mainstream, to which Neel contributed illustrations.
Alice Neel (b. 1900, Merion Square, Pennsylvania, d. 1984, New York City) was an American painter, renowned for her portraits of friends, neighbors, writers, and fellow artists.