Black Spanish Family
1950 by Alice Neel
Whitechapel Gallery, until 17th September
Alice Neel: Painted Truths really is a journey of life’s pictorial truths; taking us from her first paintings of the thirties, haunting expulsions of pain over her stillborn child, to the later portraits of the seventies, and finally to Neel herself: painted old and naked on a chair complete with knitting needles. It is this honestly, this abrupt but never cruel quality of depiction that makes Neel’s paintings so unique and compelling, her ability to paint unabashedly, producing paintings that truly convey a sense of person. Determined to paint anyone and everyone Neel often turned to those around her and painted many portraits of her neighbours in Spanish Harlem. Black Spanish Family is such a painting, depicting a mother and her two daughters obviously ‘dressed’ for the sitting, yet, as always with Neel, showing facial expressions of truth of feeling. The mother looks bored and slightly fed up, as does the child on the right staring blankly into our view, a look tinged with attitude. The daughter on the left stares very directly, with her face inquisitive, pleasingly thoughtful, reflected in the highlights that brighten one side of her face. Her skin appears smoother than the others, her eyebrows arched above wide eyes; Neel’s talent of summoning facial expression lies in these painterly sculptures of shadowy contours, appealing and emotive through their wholesome and angular visuality. Her faces are always large, thickly painted, and commanding of attention, allowing them the reflection of reality they possess. Bold brush strokes and the painterly treatment of her compositions contributes to this confident style; colour is never dull and detail only pauses when necessary, mostly on hands and faces. Neel’s paintings are like poignant introductions; we feel we meet the figures of her past.