Alice Neel’s “People Come First” Exclusive West Coast presentation comes to the de Young Museum

Originally published in the Marina Times San Francisco in March 2022

“For me, people come first. I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.”- Alice Neel

The first comprehensive museum survey of Alice Neel is coming to the de Young Museum this spring and summer.  A figurative painter and a radical champion of social justice, Neel had a long-standing commitment to humanist principles throughout her career.

The Works Progress Administration

Born in 1900, Neel studied art at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women before moving to Cuba where she had her first solo exhibition.  After returning to the United States, Neel became one of the first artists enrolled in the Works Progress Administration or WPA.  While building up the public infrastructure during the depression, the WPA paid artists through the Federal Art Project.  It was during this period that Neel’s work began to gain attention.

Pictures of People as History

The exhibition is divided into nine sections drawing on seven decades of creativity.  Neel spent most of her life residing in New York City where she painted the diverse, resilient and passionate people she encountered in the Civil Rights and Feminist movements as well as political leaders, queer cultural figures, mothers, visibly pregnant women, musicians,  and nude figures.

Counter/Culture – the largest section within this exhibition is dedicated to the people of the counterculture Neel interacted with in her lifetime.  Neel’s painting Robert Avedis Hagopian (1971) celebrates, in bright blues and yellows, the beloved local San Francisco concert pianist who died from complications of HIV/AIDS. The gallery entitled The Human Comedy derives from the work of French novelist Honore de Balzac.  These are Neel’s most emotional drawings and paintings reflecting the pain, suffering and endurance of people including those in hospitals and suicide wards.  The Fuller Brush Man (1965) is a portrait of Dewald Strauss, a salesman for the Fuller Brush Company who survived Dachau and escaped Nazi Germany. He then enlisted in the US Army and earned a Purple Heart for his service.

Galleries depicting Home and Motherhood show the artist in domestic, intimate situations and personal moments as a mother, lover and artist. Pre and Post-partum bodies are represented with a refreshing candor and emphasize the complexities of this female experience.

“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.”

Alice Neel and San Francisco

The presentation will also include an interlude dedicated to Neel and San Francisco. She made two trips to the city to visit her son in 1967 and 1969.  Ginny in Blue Shirt, a painting of her son’s wife will be on view along with a rare film showing Neel in the process of painting Ginny.  Other select works drawn from the collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco by artists Neel admired will be juxtaposed with her own work.

The Nude and Good Abstract Qualities

The Nude section of the exhibition presents provocative, groundbreaking nudes including a self-portrait painted by Neel when she was 80 years old.  The artist meets the gaze of the viewer, holding her paintbrush in one hand and oil rag in the other, representing the realism of the female body in old age.  The final room, Good Abstract Qualities, shows the artist’s experimentations with abstraction. A brilliant example of “unfinishedness” is Black Draftee (James Hunter) from 1965 depicting a draftee of the Vietnam War, scheduled for duty within a week. Hunter was scheduled to return for a second sitting but did not show, and as a result, much of his body is rendered in ghostlike lines that give the painting an ominous characteristic.

In the Media Room two short films will be playing on a loop, one is Neel’s appearance in 1984 on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and an excerpt from the Documentary They Are Their Own Gifts from 1978 in which Neel shares her working methods and philosophies.

Alice Neel painted her world, from the bohemians, dissidents and activists with whom she collaborated to other artists, family and friends. Neel called herself a “collector of souls”, a phrase that encapsulates her ability to reflect her subjects and the eras in which they lived.

Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in southern California. She can be reached at

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