Alice Neel, one of the most powerfully expressive artists of the 20th century, was recently the subject of a hugely popular show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fans may be surprised to learn that Neel had many close ties to Columbia, including both of her sons, Richard Neel ’61, LAW’64 and Hartley Neel ’63, portrayed here. Read more about Neel’s Columbia connections (and see more of her great artwork!) in our online exclusive by Jamie Katz ’72, BUS’80.
© THE ESTATE OF ALICE NEEL
Brotherly solidarity and boyish energy abound this work, which conveys Alice Neel’s respect for the complexity of her sons’ emotional lives. To her, children were not merely adults-in-waiting, but individuals to be taken as seriously as anyone else.
“There’s great affection and warmth in it,” Hartley Neel ’63 says. “In those days we were absolutely as close as you can imagine. Things were good, and Alice enjoyed doing that painting.”
Richard Neel ’61, LAW ’64 adds: “I’m glad Alice did it. Later on, she wanted to paint us in our Columbia Glee Club tuxedos, but she didn’t. It was just a concept.”
© THE ESTATE OF ALICE NEEL
Richard Neel ’61, LAW’64 sat for his mother at a stressful moment in his academic career: His intensity is clear from the look in his eyes, the careful rendering of his mouth, the three-day beard.
“I’m in the Law School here, studying for finals,” he remembers, “and I figured out that if I didn’t shave, I would save 20 minutes a day. The extra time would be used for studying.” He has long appreciated how well Alice Neel understood and expressed his state of mind. The canvas hung over his piano in a Riverside Drive apartment for many years.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, D.C., GIFT OF ARTHUR M. BILLOWA. © THE ESTATE OF ALICE NEEL.
There’s no mistaking Hartley Neel ’63’s troubled state of mind in this portrait. The distant stare and downcast mouth, each so finely detailed; his weighed-down slouch, arms akimbo; the deathly, ashen-green highlights on his face, his arms and the folds of his chinos. He was at a low point psychologically, Hartley says, and his mother captured it.
Then 25, he was a first-year med student at Tufts, having just finished two years of teaching at Dartmouth while he completed a master’s in chemistry. At home for the Christmas holiday, he felt disillusioned and conflicted. What disturbed him most was the experience of dissecting cadavers in his gross anatomy class. He wondered if he should drop out, which would probably mean getting drafted into the military just as the Vietnam War was escalating. “Fortunately, I went back to school, finished up and got excited about medicine.” He is still a practicing radiologist.
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