Broad Strokes: Alice Neel

January 25, 20224 min read
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Painter Alice Neel, born in Merion Square, Pennsylvania in 1900, was one of the twentieth century’s most original and daring portraitists. Working from life and her surroundings, Neel portrayed family, friends, neighbors, lovers, strangers and famous artists. Though she lived during the rise of abstract painting as the defining American genre—in the same period as painters like Jackson Pollock, Stuart Davis, and Mark Rothko—Neel retained her figurative style, using it to create psychological, expressionistic images of the modern world and people in her Spanish Harlem community. She did not shy away from revealing the truth in her work, often depicting anxiety and loss in raw detail. Her first NYC solo exhibition was mounted in 1944 by the Rose Fried Gallery (Rose Fried shares a connection to Rebecca Fine, head of Yieldstreet’s Art Investments). 

Despite painting fervently for more than fifty years, Neel did not sell much art during her lifetime. Three hundred paintings were found in her apartment after she died in 1984 in relative obscurity. As collectors and museums look back on the last century with an eye towards diversifying their holdings, representational art by women and minorities is coming into the spotlight.

A Recent “Rediscovery” of Alice Neel and the Rise of her Market

In 2017, Alice Neel was “rediscovered” thanks to an important exhibition at David Zwirner gallery, curated by Hilton Als, called “Alice Neel, Uptown.” New audiences, hungry for previously undervalued representational art, have recently shown tremendous interest in her work. Last year, the groundbreaking retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art “Alice Neel: People Come First” celebrated Neel as “one of the century’s most radical painters” and “a champion of social justice.” In 2021, her 1966 painting Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room was acquired from Christies for $3,030,000, more than four times its anticipated sale price of $600k-$800k.

In 2021, ten works sold for an average price of just under $1 million. Sales have consistently outperformed expectations: since 2006, 56 of her paintings have sold at auction above pre-sale low estimates by 1.8x on average. We call this the Hammer Ratio: a metric, unique to Athena, which provides additional context for just how strongly works by this artist have historically performed and speaks to overall bidding appetite for her artworks.

Athena’s proprietary analysis also illustrates that since 2006 Neel’s average price for paintings has grown at a compound 9.7% annually. While past performance does not guarantee future results, it is an interesting statistic when compared against artists like Mark Rothko or Keith Haring. Neel’s works will only continue to gain value as her legacy of humanist portraiture cements itself in the market and the popular imagination.

Learn more about Neel’s background and artistic style

Although she was raised by a strict middle-class family that did not support her desire to become an artist, Neel pursued her dream and studied at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1921. In 1925, she married a well-off Cuban painter Carlos Enríquez, moved to Havana, and gave birth to her first child. The family returned to the US in 1927, where, following her daughter’s tragic death of diphtheria, Neel’s paintings grew darker and more concerned with themes of childbirth, feminine experience, and loss. In 1930, Enríquez returned to Cuba with their second child, abandoning Neel in an impoverished neighborhood. A devasted Neel attempted suicide and was institutionalized for a year. Upon her return to New York she lived in Greenwich Village, immersing herself in downtown’s political and intellectual scenes. 

In 1938, she moved to Spanish Harlem with her lover José Santiago Negrón, where she would live and paint until 1962. Neel’s artistic inclinations were “against abstract and non-objective art because such art shows a hatred of human beings. It is an attempt to eliminate people from art, and as such it is bound to fail.” 

In the 1960s, Neel delved further into the feminine, making many portraits of pregnant women in the nude and included the enlarged nipples and swollen bellies of the women who sat for her. Neel remarked in response to criticism, “I feel as a subject it’s perfectly legitimate, and people out of false modesty, or being sissies never showed it.” At eighty-one, Neel alarmed the guests at a fundraising luncheon by exhibiting a nude self-portrait in which she appears seated in an armchair, wearing only her glasses.

Neel’s famous painting of Andy Warhol

In the mid-1970s, Neel’s popularity briefly rose, thanks in part to her first retrospective, at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Her most well-known celebrity portrait, of Andy Warhol, remains in the Whitney’s collection. Neel painted the Pop art master with the scars from his near-death shooting by Valerie Solanas two years earlier, stripping Warhol of his untouchable aura and instead highlighting his vulnerability.

For more on Neel, explore Yieldstreet’s Art Equity Fund II, the newest in a series of art equity focused funds, which is expected to own a portfolio of approximately 10-20 artworks by artists who have been influenced by a century of experiences in Harlem, NYC.