Alice Neel’s Exclusive West Coast Presentation Comes to the de Young Museum

Alice Neel, "Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd", 1970. Image courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art. © The Estate of Alice Neel; Artist Alice Neel in front of a self portrait circa 1980 in New York City. Photo by Sonia Moskowitz / Getty Images; Alice Neel , "The Spanish Family", 1943, © The Estate of Alice Neel. Image courtesy David Zwirner.

Alice Neel: People Come First
de Young museum / March 12 – July 10, 2022 

"For me, people come first. I have tried to assert the diginity and eternal importance of the human being." – Alice Neel


Media Image Gallery

SAN FRANCISCO –  The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are proud to present the first comprehensive museum survey of work by American artist Alice Neel (1900-1984) on the West Coast. This retrospective positions Neel as one of the 20th century’s most radical painters–one who championed social justice, and held a longstanding commitment to humanist principles that inspired both her art and her life. Featuring a multitude of Neel’s paintings, drawings, and watercolors, as well as a rarely seen film—unique to the de Young’s presentation—the de Young museum will be the only West Coast venue for this revolutionary exhibition.

“Though Alice Neel called New York City her home, much of her persona and art, overflowing with uncompromising humanism and regard for all people, aligns deeply with the spirit of San Francisco,” stated Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Neel visited the city a few times in her lifetime, creating a number of works which will be on view in our presentation at the de Young. It is with much delight that we welcome Neel back to the Bay through her resounding paintings.”

This exhibition spans the entirety of Neel’s career, from her professional debut in Cuba in the 1920s and her work as part of the W.P.A in the 1930s; through her commitment to centering the figure at a time when abstraction was ascendant, in the 1940s and 1950s; her resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s; and the emergence of her “late style” in the 1980s. Besides foregrounding her often under-recognized artistic accomplishments, Alice Neel: People Come First showcases Neel as an artist who engaged with progressive politics throughout her lifetime.

Neel spent the majority of her life in New York City, where she painted countless portraits of the diverse, resilient, and passionate people she encountered there. The exhibition includes portraits of Feminist, Civil Rights, and political leaders, activists, queer cultural figures, mothers, visibly pregnant women, musicians, nude figures, and many others, all of which illuminate Neel’s profound humanist principles.

“Alice Neel dedicated her practice to portraying both people and moments in life that have often been erased or forgotten through time,” says Lauren Palmor, Assistant Curator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Whether portraying the strength and struggles of her neighbors in Spanish Harlem, the labors of pregnancy and motherhood, or a generation of creatives devastated by the AIDS crisis, her works are unflinching in their honesty and radical in their interpretation.”

The exhibition’s presentation at the de Young is divided into nine sections, drawing upon seven decades of Neel’s output. Working in a range of genres, she considered her “pictures of people” to be historical records of the time in which they were made. The exhibition will also include her accomplishments in other styles, specifically still lifes, landscapes, and cityscapes.

The de Young’s presentation will also include a section dedicated to Neel and San Francisco. Neel made two trips to the city to visit her son Hartley in 1967 and 1969. Hartley was then living with his future wife Ginny, who assisted Neel with stretching canvases during her visits. It was during this time that Neel produced a piece entitled Ginny in Blue Shirt (1969). In dialogue with the finished work will be a rarely seen silent film showing Neel in the process of painting Ginny in Blue Shirt, captured by her son Hartley.

Also distinct to the de Young’s presentation are select works by Neel juxtaposed with selected works drawn from the collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, including those by artists that Neel herself admired. This gallery will shine a light on the myriad of ways the artist intersected with, and also diverged from, art historical precedent.

Alice Neel: People Come First will be on view from March 12 through July 10, 2022, at the de Young museum in San Francisco. The exhibition was co-curated by Kelly Baum, the Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art, and Randall Griffey, Curator, Modern & Contemporary Art, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The de Young’s presentation is coordinated by Lauren Palmor, Assistant Curator of American Art, at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

About Alice Neel

Alice Hartley Neel (1900–1984) is widely considered one of the twentieth century’s foremost artists, whose expressive practice represented the people she knew and the worlds she inhabited. Born to a middle-class family in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion Square, Pennsylvania, she studied at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art and Design). Neel came to reject the impressionist style favored by her instructors, gravitating instead towards the teachings of Robert Henri and the influence of the larger Ashcan School of realism, which addressed such subjects as urban poverty and the vitality of the working class. Neel’s nascent humanism was further shaped by a formative sojourn in Havana, Cuba, where she began to see art as a political act.

Neel moved to New York City in 1927, where she would continue to live and work for most of her life. She spent some early formative years in Greenwich Village, then the city’s epicenter of bohemian culture and progressive politics. There she entered the employment of the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) easel division and engaged with the Communist Party, remaining committed to its ideals and loyal to its champions throughout her lifetime. In 1938, Neel settled in Spanish Harlem, where she faithfully recorded the dynamism and diversity of her neighborhood. In 1975, when explaining her move from Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem, Neel told an interviewer that she “found more truth in Spanish Harlem [...] than there is in all these festival places.” Her “pictures of people” from this period reflect the richness she saw in the community, sensitively capturing the tapestries of emotion and experience she observed in those who were otherwise overlooked by the art establishment of the time.

Neel’s subject matter expanded after moving to the Upper West Side in 1962, when she began to include more leaders in the civil rights and feminist movements in her portrait practice. Working in what would be her final residence and studio, Neel also increasingly painted more artists, curators, and other cultural figures, a development that coincided with the artist’s growing visibility and notoriety. During the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when the women's movement and the feminist art movement introduced new audiences to Neel’s radical vision, she began to receive the outpouring of recognition she was earlier denied.

Decades of balancing her progressive politics with the demands of being an artist and mother further sensitized Neel to the subjects she painted, and she adhered to an intimate and forthright form of portraiture at a time when the dominant trends in art renounced figuration. Neel called herself a “collector of souls,” a phrase that encapsulates her ability to reflect her sitters as well as the era in which they lived.

She later described, “If I have any talent in relation to people, apart from planning the whole canvas, it is my identification with them. I get so identified when I paint them, when they go home I feet frightful. I have no self-I've gone into this other person. And by doing that, there's a kind of something I get that other artists don't get.” Neel’s radical empathy and progressive politics are reflected in a body of work that reflects the cultural shifts of the twentieth century, and her riveting documents of American life testify to her humanity, her sense of justice, and her continued relevance to contemporary museum audiences.


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Exhibition Organization
The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Visiting \ de Young
The de Young Museum is open Tue - Sun 9.30 am - 5.15 pm. For more information, please visit deyoungmuseum.org.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young museum, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco, and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States.

The de Young originated from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park and was established as the Memorial Museum in 1895. It was later renamed in honor of Michael H. de Young, who spearheaded its creation. The present copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in October 2005. Reflecting an active conversation among cultures, perspectives, and time periods, the collections on view include American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries; arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international modern and contemporary art.

Media Inquiries:
Shaquille Heath, Manager of Communications, sheath@famsf.org