This Woman’s Work
Alice Neel: People Come First. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March 22–August 1, 2021.
In 1972, while giving a lecture at Bloomsburg State College in her home state of Pennsylvania, the artist Alice Neel remarked, “I could certainly have accomplished much more with a good wife.” The huge retrospective now on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, comprising over a hundred works spanning from the 1920s through the early 1980s, is a testament to Neel’s prolific artistic production despite this lack. Yet her wry comment highlights a predicament that her paintings and sketches repeatedly document: the Sisyphean task facing many American women of the twentieth century who were expected to do the unpaid work of mothering and wiving, as well as wage-earning.
On the wall as you enter the exhibition is a trio of watercolors, including two that are both titled The Family, painted in 1927. One shows Neel with her mother, father, and brother at their home in Colwyn. The paper is divided into three sections that abstract the floors of a single-family home: her stooped father hauls coal up the basement stairs; Neel and her mother are in the living room, where Neel tends to her recently born daughter, Santillana, while her mother is on all fours, scrubbing the floor and looking agitatedly to the side. A circular table in the center of the room dwarfs her mother’s tiny frame: it is as if she is being crowded out of her home by the furnishings that she is laboring so hard to keep neat and tidy. Vivid streaks of reddish pink striate her arm, conveying chilblains and hard-worked skin. Oblivious to the domestic work going on around him, Neel’s brother placidly relaxes reading a book on the top floor. In the second watercolor, Neel is with her husband Carlos Enríquez. He reclines while Neel is bent over wrapping a diaper around their daughter, who writhes awkwardly away from her father’s grasp. Neel’s breasts are bare in the second watercolor, perhaps she has just nursed the child, and she looks almost bovine in her crouched stance.
“I could certainly have accomplished much more with a good wife.”
Showing these two works side by side emphasizes that Neel and her mother are mirror images of one another in these scenes, both bent at the waist and almost prostrate in their labor. The mundane body horror of turning into one’s mother is expressed in swift graphic lines that capture corporeal repetitions across generations. Neel had hesitated to go on a honeymoon with Enríquez and vacillated for many months before joining him in Havana in 1926, suddenly aware that married life would impinge on her ability to paint, and indeed she soon became pregnant after arriving in Cuba. Carlos returned to the United States from Havana in the fall of 1927, and the couple moved into a rented room on West 81st Street. The two watercolors demonstrate how the family dynamics of conventional homes were reproduced in supposedly bohemian relationships of the early twentieth century.
Moving further into the show, a suite of works made in late 1920s and early 1930s and tucked away in a corner of the Human Comedy room document Neel’s often devastating experiences as a poor mother and broke woman artist. Clustered together, Futility of Effort (1930), Well Baby Clinic (1928–1929), and Suicidal Ward (1931) trace her early married life. Shortly after Carlos returned to the United States, their daughter Santillana died of diphtheria. Futility of Effort shows a child limply hanging between the bars of a bed frame with the surroundings abstractly sketched: the brief outlines of an adult loom to the right-hand side, a parent in a different room not yet aware of the dead infant. Neel painted it after reading a newspaper article about how a child had died after strangling between bedposts while the mother was ironing in the kitchen. It also conveyed her own grief and guilt about Santillana’s death. Diphtheria was a poor person’s disease by the 1920s: in the 1870s it had killed Queen Victoria’s daughter, but by the third decade of the twentieth century, there was a vaccine and treatment. New York City’s Department of Health was gradually expanding testing and immunization programs during the 1920s for working-class kids, but the vaccine was not widely accessible until the 1940s. Crowded living conditions and malnutrition greatly increased the likelihood of getting the disease and its severity once contracted.
In an autobiographical fragment reflecting on Santillana’s death, Neel wrote,
Do you know how much an oil stove costs? About $5 . . . But you see if I’d had the money—the green lovely dollars the shining quarters to buy a coat with maybe I wouldn’t have caught laryngitis so badly if we hadn’t had to live in one little room the baby maybe wouldn’t have caught it like she did and then if I could have paid a doctor I wouldn’t have been so slow to call one and then it was so cold oh so cold if only I had had an oil stove to keep the room warm at night. Oh my god a black oil stove haunts me. I told him we needed it but he’s so used to trying to get out of spending any money for necessities that it’s a habit. And then I got tired and frightened and weakminded. Well she died mostly from the goddamned discomfort. Well how do you expect one to feel about money. Well after that his family sent him some but I didn’t like to eat because I knew the baby dying had earned those meals for us.
The piece moves back between past and present tense, conveying Neel’s continuing self-recrimination and her haunting sense of present guilt, despite her astute analysis that it was their impoverishment that had caused and hastened the disease. In this painting, we see how her experience of motherhood was shaped by her precarious class position and the persistent cruelty that, under capitalism, mothering is expensive but earns no money.
Well Baby Clinic was painted soon after Neel gave birth to a second daughter, Isabetta, in the fall of 1928, while she and Carlos were still struggling to make enough money to live in New York. Neel took a job at a bank to make ends meet but had to quit when she became too visibly pregnant. She gave birth to Isabetta at a hospital on 105th Street and Fifth Avenue that offered extensive free and low-cost health care for poor patients.[*] The hospital, like many in the 1920s, had begun to offer well baby clinics that provided periodic check-ups to monitor infant health and try to address the shocking infant mortality rates suffered by working-class New York families. Despite these ostensibly good intentions, Neel depicts a hellish clinic. The beds are packed claustrophobically together in the painting, and a sense of palpating distress emanates from the new mothers, while a nurse dressed in all-white at the center of the scene seems detached. The infants writhe on the beds, and most are painted in an unsettling reddish hue; Neel referred to one as a “little bit of hamburger” when describing the image, and they are indeed the color of ground beef. To the right, a grinning mother wrapping her child in a white cloth looks deranged rather than beatific. There are no visible windows, and the white walls are stained a dingy grey.
We see how her experience of motherhood was shaped by her precarious class position and the persistent cruelty that, under capitalism, mothering is expensive but earns no money.
Visual representations of hospitals for the poor in the early twentieth century were usually limited to anodyne photographs in philanthropic annual reports in which working class people looked docile and grateful for the ministrations of neatly dressed nurses and doctors. Hospital wards were typically shown organized along Florence Nightingale’s open ward plans, in which beds were regularly arranged in neat rows against walls, ideally each one positioned by a large window to circulate fresh air because the miasma theory of disease still influenced spatial arrangements. Stations for nurses punctuated these rows, allowing a single nurse to efficiently surveil a large group of patients. Such photos acted as a visual corollary to the charts and diagrams that populated these pamphlets, emphasizing that medical care for the poor was rationalized, orderly, and provided measurable outcomes. This visual rhetoric was part of the scientific charity movement that sought to ameliorate the conditions of industrial cities through efficient philanthropy rather than expansive economic redistribution. Emotions were purposefully neutralized in these reports—which were intended to encourage wealthy donors to continue to contribute—and the horrors that capitalism wrought on poor people were abstracted through numbers and carefully staged photographs.
By contrast, Neel shows a scene of chaos, in which beds are askew and many babies are unattended. The overwhelming insufficiency of such a place to address the dire health of poor New Yorkers in the early twentieth century pervades the painting. As with Futility of Effort, it is hard not to see this as another image shaped by Neel’s own guilt about her first daughter’s death: this time over the barbarism of getting health care now, when it was too late for Santillana. Notably, too, the painting depicts a racially integrated medical space, as numerous hospitals and health centers for the poor in Harlem were, with a Black mother and child in the corner. Yet Black women often received medical care that was shaped by racism, as the historian Tanya Hart has shown: “Most white physicians and scientists at the time perceived blacks as ‘a notoriously syphilis-soaked race,’” and administered medical care accordingly. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Black women had to receive syphilis tests—which were often inaccurate and, if positive, led to toxic treatment with salvarsan—to gain access to maternity care at free clinics because of racist beliefs regarding Black promiscuity. This practice soon applied to poor white women too; indeed, Neel was forced to have a debilitating spinal epidural to check for venereal diseases when she was later a patient at the Philadelphia General Hospital. Well Baby Clinic captures the unequal class and race relations in these health clinics for the poor and evokes an insidious sense of their inadequacy in one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
It is striking that a later sketch of a hospital for the working class displayed nearby, in which Neel’s mother is shown at the end of her life—City Hospital (1954)—has a very different tenor. We see a calm room, flooded with light from the tall windows that look out on a river. This scene, depicting the old City Hospital on Roosevelt Island, indicates the huge impact that New Deal funding had on the public hospital system—the influx of money for public hospitals and health centers made them competitive with private hospitals in terms of the quality of buildings, equipment, and staff. In the sketch, we can see that two nurses attend to a room with just six beds in view, which are carefully arranged by the large windows. Though these nurses, as women of color, might not have had access to such good medical care themselves. Hospitals in Harlem, by then both an African American and increasingly Latinx neighborhood, were systematically underfunded by the city at the hands of the racist hospital commissioner Basil MacLean.
Two years after Neel painted Well Baby Clinic, Carlos returned to his wealthy family in Havana in the summer of 1930 and took Isabetta with him. Neel remained in the city so that she could paint but ran out of money and had a nervous breakdown. She soon had to move back to her parents’ home in Philadelphia and was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Suicidal Ward is a pencil sketch of the titular ward at Philadelphia General. In it, we see neat rows of beds and an avuncular-looking doctor, but a woman patient stares distrustfully at him while two nurses struggle to restrain a distressed woman in the background. As in the case of her daughter’s death, Neel emphasized how her lack of money led to her own severe depression, remarking, “If only I’d had five hundred dollars, I wouldn’t have had the nervous breakdown,” as she could have kept renting a room and painting instead.
The pressures of Neel’s class position as a professional woman artist from a lower middle-class family are evident throughout the show. As Neel’s biographer Phoebe Hoban points out, she became an expert typist and stenographer after high school because she was aware that her family was strapped for money and that she could not be a drain on their finances. She did Army Air Corps secretarial work and other civil service jobs, eventually saving enough money for one year’s tuition of art school. She was accepted by the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in the winter 1921, after which her skill meant that she got scholarships to support a further three years of study there, graduating in the summer of 1925. It was one of the first trade schools for women in the country and was founded in 1848 by Sarah Peter, the wife of a British consul in Philadelphia, who wanted to help women find wage-earning jobs. Yet even here Neel was struck by class differences—rich women used it as a finishing school, while she saw herself as a “grind” with a long daily commute who would have to use her training as a painter to support herself and who thus worked obsessively on that training.
An early room in Alice Neel: People Come First, titled New York City, contains many works from the New Deal era that show Neel’s experiences of interwar New York and expand the scope of feminized labor depicted in her work. These works were made after Neel was well enough to return to the city in 1932, when she moved to Greenwich Village. Most striking is a small painting, made at the height of the Great Depression while Neel was employed by the Public Works of Art Project—a short-lived forerunner to the Work Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project—and titled Investigation of Poverty at the Russell Sage Foundation (1933). In it, a woman with greying hair under a cloche hat is overcome with emotion, her head buried in her hands. She is surrounded by an inquisitive group of professionals, including two young women among the predominantly male crowd, who peer at her with detached curiosity. To the right-hand side, a couple of older indigent men, the only people in the painting who have politely averted their eyes, sit waiting for their turn. The deep scarlet rear wall intensifies the sense of infernal desperation.
Neel recounted that the head of the Unemployment Council, Harry Liss, took her to see investigations into the poor made by philanthropic organizations because of her left-wing politics—Neel was a Marxist. She recalled that the woman at the center of the scene she depicted “was living with her seven children under an overturned automobile—that was their house. She had a rash all over her chest.” As the historian Alice O’Connor has written, such social investigations were a common component of the poverty work undertaken by philanthropies in the first decades of the twentieth century. Social investigations emerged out of the Progressive Era settlement house movement, in which American college-educated middle-class women who couldn’t enter traditional professions due to their gender moved into working-class urban neighborhoods and established “settlement houses,” where they offered proto-social services, carried out social surveys, and advocated for government intervention to aid the working classes.
This work slowly began to be recognized as a profession in its own right. In 1910 the federal census placed social work in a “semi-professional” category alongside such jobs as fortune tellers, keepers of pleasure resorts, and sportsmen. By 1930, it was moved to “other professional pursuits.” This was a double-edged sword, as many historians of gender have observed. The work gave middle-class women a route out of the home and in some ways improved the living conditions of poor neighborhoods, but these women’s professionalization depended upon monitoring and disciplining working-class women and children. Much of the work of settlement houses involved categorizing poor people as “deserving” or “undeserving” of aid, a relentless moralizing calculus that shaped government welfare programs during the New Deal and after. The Russell Sage Foundation was typical of this history; established in 1907 by the wealthy widow Margaret Olivia Sage, it drew trustees and staff from charity organizations and settlement houses, and Sage insisted on women holding positions of power throughout the organization. These women shaped the agenda of the Foundation, emphasizing the importance of women’s work in the working class. Though this seems self-evident, at the time many male professors of economics still operated on the assumption that—as in middle-class homes— there were male breadwinners who supported non-wage-earning women and children. What women settlement house workers uncovered was that, as Agnes Holbrook, a settlement house worker at Hull House in Chicago put it, “the theory that ‘every man supports his own family’ is as idle in a district like this as the fiction that ‘every man can get work if he wants it.’”
Neel recounted that the head of the Unemployment Council, Harry Liss, took her to see investigations into the poor made by philanthropic organizations because of her left-wing politics.
Artistic representations of poor people abounded during the Great Depression, but Neel’s painting is unusual in its depiction of an investigation of poverty. Portraits of the working class, such as Walker Evans’s photographs of Dustbowl families, often showed poor people in isolation, presented as objects of sympathy or curiosity for the viewer. What comes to mind most when looking at Neel’s painting is E. P. Thompson’s dictum in The Making of the English Working Class that “class is a relationship and not a thing.” Neel triangulates class relations on the canvas: we see her view of the fraught relationship between the middle-class poverty workers and the working-class subjects, the lack of dignity in the power relation that has lowered the poor woman’s bowed head.
We can also see the contradictions of feminized work in the forms of these male and female professional social investigators. Their studious detachment from the poor woman can be seen in part as a defensive stance in the face of the fairly recent professionalization of this kind of labor, and the abiding idea that helping professions were women’s work and had to be undertaken with emotional neutrality to be taken seriously as research. It’s worth noting that by the 1930s, such work was increasingly undertaken by second-generation immigrant women from lower middle-class families, rather than the wealthy Anglo women who had first staked out this field in the 1890s—and men often ran the offices. This dynamic is evident in the two women foundation workers in Neel’s painting, particularly the woman in the center taking notes. She is also wearing a black cloche hat, which, coupled with her sensitive expression, pairs her with the anguished woman at the center. Her work would not have been well remunerated—in part because it would have been assumed that she would have a husband or father to augment her income—and it’s possible that she feels her own economic precariousness as she looks at the poor woman.
The painting itself, as with many paintings in the New York City room, testifies to the huge impact of the PWAP and later WPA, particularly on women and artists of color, who were able to pursue careers as artists through its financial support. Neel’s professional career was in part enabled by this government aid. She was one of the first artists to get a wage from the PWAP in 1933 and was one of the last artists to leave the WPA’s rolls in 1942. She received $103.40 a month and found an apartment on West 17th Street for $25 a month: about $2,000 and $500 respectively in today’s money. Later, she moved uptown, where she rented a similarly cheap apartment in East Harlem in 1938.
Neel continued to grapple with the experience of working-class motherhood in the post-war period. This is evident in a small but compelling reproduction in the pages of the leftist journal Masses & Mainstream of Neel’s ink drawing Relief Cut (1950), displayed in a vitrine in the New York City room. In it, she depicts a working-class mother with two children receiving news of a reduction to their welfare check at the kitchen table. The mother’s emaciated arms bonily protrude from her rolled-up shirt sleeves while a son with sunken eyes listlessly eats and a daughter in headscarf stands with a book in hand, looking like a tiny, wizened woman. It’s notable that the son is the only one eating: as the feminist historian Ellen Ross has shown, working-class mothers would feed everyone else in the family before themselves, prioritizing male family members. A narrow window behind the family opens onto a fire escape and shows another building immediately beyond, suggesting that they are in a dense tenement district. A row of laundry runs above the table. Notably, Neel’s illustration is disjointed from the articles in Masses & Mainstream, which, like much of the left-wing press, were focused on male labor and activism. The issue in question was authored entirely by men, beginning with coverage of a miner’s strike; Neel’s sketch comes halfway through Ilya Ehrenburg’s article about Pablo Neruda and fascism in Chile. Only her drawing and a reproduction of Leona Pierce’s woodcut of a mother and child attend to the experiences of women, and only Neel’s image shows how women’s experience of motherhood was shaped by their class position.
At this point in her life, Neel was relying on welfare herself. When the WPA program ended in 1943, she immediately signed up for relief as a single mother with, by then, two young sons in her care: Richard, born in 1939 while Neel was in a relationship with the musician José Santiago, and Hartley, born in 1941 when she was with the photographer and filmmaker Sam Brody. (Her erstwhile husband Carlos remained in Cuba with Isabetta and his family, and Neel only saw her daughter a couple more times in her life.) She got her sons scholarships to a Steiner school, ensuring they would at least have cultural capital that they could leverage as she herself did, and both later attended Columbia University. Though Neel couldn’t afford a fridge for many years and used an icebox, the trio did have some modern amenities, like a telephone and TV, which they had to hide from welfare inspectors, who were always on the lookout for signs that welfare recipients were living too well. Neel was in fact reported for taking her son Richard to a concert and for being well-dressed. This surveillance was typical of the deeply flawed welfare administration in the United States following the New Deal. As historian Daniel Walkowitz has observed, “The abiding principles of relief that governed Aid to Families with Dependent Children [established in 1935, this was the program Neel would have enrolled in] until 1997 and then Temporary Aid to Needy Families, had become established by the mid-nineteenth century: promoting ‘less eligibility’ in order to wean putatively dishonest mendicants from the lists and keeping assistance levels below the prevailing rate of wages for a given community in order to encourage habits of work (and, perhaps not so incidentally, provide cheap labor.)”
The constant cuts to welfare “to encourage habits of work” are documented by Neel in the Masses & Mainstream ink drawing, which shows the toll that they took on poor families who were already living at subsistence levels—and particularly the toll on poor mothers. Unlike some of her subjects, Neel herself managed to cannily navigate this punitive system. She had notable advantages as a well-educated white woman who was far less likely to be perceived as an undeserving welfare recipient in the context of pervasive anti-Black racism, and who was comfortable demanding this income, which she saw as the very least that she deserved as a low-income New Yorker. She maintained her place on the lists for over a decade to ensure that she could mother her sons while working as a frequently unremunerated artist. Neel had other ways of getting by as well: Phoebe Hoban reports that Neel would supplement this income by shoplifting. Phillip Bonosky, a family friend, wrote, “I love the guerrilla way she goes through stores and, poor as she is, takes what she wants, slips it under her dress, merrily. With a flash of her eyes too! One for our side!” Another way that she navigated the capitalist system enabled in part by her whiteness.
Furthermore, Hoban documents that Neel’s friend (and occasional lover) John Rothschild and her parents gave her money to buy a one-story cottage in Spring Lake on the Jersey Shore in the mid-1930s, where she and the boys would spend summers. By 1959, she managed to accrue enough capital to buy a larger two-story, three-bedroom summer house. Blue House, painted in 1963, shows a nearby scene on the Jersey Shore. It is no coincidence that this purchase was made possible after her parents had died and her youngest son turned eighteen, enabling Neel’s increasingly stable finances.
The rooms of Neel’s later portraits are evidence of her upward social mobility and her shifting relationship to feminized labor in the 1960s and 1970s. Increasingly, the walls are populated by prominent figures in the New York art world, such as Andy Warhol, Gregory Battcock, and Henry Geldzahler. While Neel might not have had the male advantage of a helpful wife, she did maintain the middle-class advantage of a housekeeper intermittently through the 1940s and 1950s, and solidly by the 1960s. In an interview with Hoban, Jenny Santiago, the sister of Neel’s lover José, dryly remarked, “Alice was always broke. Well, she lived on welfare, but she had a maid, Francisca.” By the mid-1950s, Neel was making enough money to go off public assistance, and in 1964, she began to receive an annual stipend of $6,000 (about $52,000 in today’s money) from the wealthy philanthropist Dr. Muriel Gardiner. Neel would consistently obscure that her earlier life as a constantly cash-strapped young mother had changed in interviews, however, presenting herself as the archetypal bohemian artist. She remarked for instance about Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, which was published in 1963, “I was such a snob. I couldn’t identify with the housewife in Queens, I didn’t have her aids—her washing machine and her security.” Many friends and colleagues were unaware of her various sources of income and her housekeeping arrangements, partially because Neel strategically maintained that she was on the brink of poverty so that she could get money as needed from acquaintances, friends, and lovers, and fulfill the image that helped to sell her work. In fact, she was increasingly affluent, as can be marked by her summer homes and changing residential addresses in the city; once the boys grew up, she moved to the west and up the hill from East Harlem to the whiter and more well-to-do area of Morningside Heights in 1962. This (literal) upward trajectory is obscured by the exhibition’s thematic, rather than chronological, organization.
If Neel was coy in interviews about the help she received, the painting of her Haitian housekeeper Carmen, who also babysat and cleaned for her daughter-in-law Nancy, Carmen and Judy (1972), is in part a record of her reliance on other women to do the domestic work she had so resented doing as a young woman herself. The portrait shows Carmen seated with one breast bared, in the midst of nursing her daughter, with the surroundings sketchily delineated. Carmen had one daughter in New York and, by Neel’s account, “about four” children in Haiti. Her left hand is splayed over her knee and enlarged to the point of being out of scale with the rest of her body. Neel remarked of the painting, “Look at how hard she’s worked, look at that hand.” Judy died soon after the painting was finished, and Carmen had one more daughter before, according to Neel, undergoing tubal ligation.
The painting is installed in the exhibition’s Motherhood room, which tells us a specifically American history of women’s work—in particular through the juxtaposition of Carmen and Judy (1972) with Nancy and the Twins (1971), which are hung across from a 1973 portrait of the renowned feminist art historian and curator Linda Nochlin and her daughter Daisy on the opposite wall. The kind of domestic and care work undertaken by Carmen had been purposefully left out of the New Deal labor regulations. In a compromise with racist Southern Democrats, maids (and farm workers), who made up two thirds of the South’s Black workforce, were excluded from the sweeping economic programs of the era. Simultaneously, child rearing continued to be barely understood as work: mothers could get meager welfare benefits, but these were seen by many as enabling women to fulfil a natural role, rather than as waged compensation for domestic labor. Carmen and Nancy seem to have sat in the same physical space for these portraits by Neel; a mustard carpet, plum couch, and duck egg blue wall comprise the setting for each. Their poses echo one another too: each has one breast exposed and is captured nursing their children. Yet their pairing might prompt us to think about how the limitations of the New Deal caused vast disparities between the labor opportunities for working-class women and middle-class women, and for white women and women of color, in the post-war period.
Non-unionized and unregulated domestic work continued to be a major field of employment for working-class Caribbean American and African American women, particularly during the urban crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, which saw a collapse in industrial jobs and high unemployment rates among Black men. Health care was increasingly privatized and dependent on blue- and white-collar employment, while public health care systems were increasingly underfunded, thus exacerbating the costs of mothering and child rearing for low income women of all races. Concurrently, middle-class women, predominantly white, made many professional gains, though they frequently remained responsible for organizing care of children and the household while maintaining professional jobs; they also faced the absence of any substantive state support for child rearing, as well as the enduring issue of house work. Thus they often turned to privatized solutions in the form of nannies and cleaners, many of whom were working-class women of color. As art historian Linda Nochlin, who sits nearby Carmen and Nancy, summarizes it,
Like most intellectual women in the 1950s and 1960s, I thought my problems were my own, unique, the products of neurosis or disorganization, not social problems afflicting all women of my sort. Neurosis, not the double message of high achievement coupled with sacrifice of self for husband and family conveyed to intelligent women by the ideological structures controlling gendered behavior, was the reason we were so mixed up, I thought, often incapable of focusing on intellectual work without pain or conflict. I was exhausted so often, I believed, because I wasn’t well organized enough to juggle housework (admittedly only rudimentary, but necessary nevertheless), childcare, husband, teaching, and graduate studies while also commuting from Poughkeepsie to New York, part-time. If I couldn’t manage such a full life . . . with sufficient calm and expertise, I felt it was because I somehow hadn’t figured things out properly, not because I was doing so many things without a support system to give me a sense that I was entitled to do them. Organized childcare was non-existent and women were supposed to run the household single-handed even if they were professionals.
Though sharp, it’s notable that Nochlin’s assessment foregrounds her gender and minimizes her class and race position. The terms “intellectual” and “intelligent” imbue her and her contemporaries’ new positions as scholars and curators with a sense of well-deserved meritocracy, but they could just as easily be exchanged with “white and middle-class.” Nochlin’s rhetorical move minimizes how primary and higher education at elite schools, as well as social connections to educational and art institutions, smoothed the entry of many middle-class American women into creative professions, which remained out of reach for many working-class women, particularly those of color. (Nochlin herself came from a very wealthy family, grew up with servants and a yacht, and attended Vassar, Columbia University, and NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts.) Though some working-class people would manage to make their way into the academic and museum worlds, these remained predominantly fields for white people with solidly middle and upper-class backgrounds. Indeed, just as today, the relatively low pay offered by graduate programs and many curatorial jobs almost necessitated coming from family money or having an affluent partner.
Meanwhile, many working-class women, disproportionately women of color, found jobs doing domestic work for middle-class families, particularly given that most middle-class men remained as reluctant as ever to contribute any of their labor to the upkeep of the house, the rearing of children, or the kind of administrative support for their wives’ careers that so many mid-century wives offered their husbands. In this sense, Nochlin’s analysis of the gendered expectations that constrained middle-class women trying to pursue professional careers remains poignant, as does her argument that her feelings of being overwhelmed and inadequate had structural causes. Furthermore, it should be remembered that her groundbreaking work in the late 1960s and 1970s was conceived at a time when gendered analysis in the discipline of art history was virtually non-existent and she—and other women—had to carve out a space and a language for themselves in the face of near-constant hostility and condescension from male professors.
Despite the absence of an official support system for professional women that Nochlin identified, Neel consistently found the means to carefully protect her time to paint in the face of all the obligations entailed as a mother in charge of a household. This was especially true by her later years, when she had Carmen to help with the labor of keeping the apartment and devoted daughter-in-law in Nancy to act as her assistant. Indeed, Hoban reports that John Cheim, the director of the Robert Miller Gallery, observed that Neel treated her daughter-in-law Nancy as “you might expect a bossy husband to treat a wife that you’ve had for a long time. She just kind of barked out at her.” Though wifeless, in the Motherhood room we see how in Carmen and Nancy, Neel found other women to do the feminized labor that would have distracted from her painting; in different ways, they undertook the domestic work that facilitated her professional career, which flourished in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Neel greatly benefited, too, from the second-wave feminist movement, though she had a prickly relationship with it. By the 1970s, an increasingly influential group of women art critics and curators sought out work by women artists, including Neel, and aimed to add them to the artistic canon (while some critiqued the institution of the canon itself, as in Nochlin’s landmark essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” published in 1971). This new impetus to show women’s art aided Neel’s career, and she was offered prestigious commissions, such as when she painted Kate Millett’s portrait for the Time cover of August 1970, which is on view in a vitrine in the exhibition’s Nude room. She also took part in the many events for women artists over the course of the decade, such as the first national Conference on Women in the Visual Arts in 1972, where Neel had to be “dragged from the stage,” according to the historian Mary Garrard, after presenting decades’ worth of her work. Yet the contemporaneous feminist artist May Stevens remarked that Neel “wasn’t a feminist—she was an Alice Neelist.”
Maybe she felt a haunting self-loathing at the injustice of being richer than others in New York, at occupying a position she once ridiculed.
It’s probably more accurate to say that Neel remained a devoted Marxist who was troubled by many white second-wave feminists’ reluctance to engage with class and racial inequities. In Neel’s own words: “What amazed me was that all of the women critics respect you if you paint your own pussy as a woman’s libber, but they didn’t have any respect for being able to see politically and apprise the third world. So nobody mentioned that I managed to even see beyond my pussy politically, but I thought that was a really good thing. If they had a little more brains, they should have given me credit for being able to see not the feminine world, but my own world.” She was active in 1971 protests against racism and sexism in museums organized by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and Art Workers’ Coalition at the Whitney and Museum of Modern Art. At the same time, her work in the 1970s and 1980s reflects her social mobility; she painted fewer portraits of activists and neighborhood figures, and no scenes of the free clinics and social welfare investigations that she had documented as a poor mother in the first half of the twentieth century. She had moved out of the precarious class position that she had occupied earlier in her career, and out of the spaces that had corresponded to it.
“If I ever write a biography, I’m going to call it ‘I am the century.’ I’m four weeks younger than the century,” Neel once said, and her artworks show us the changing nature of women’s work during that century, as well as the way Neel’s race and class position allowed her to increasingly strategically navigate gendered expectations as she aged. She began the twentieth century as a lower middle-class white woman and ended it as an upper middle-class white woman—Neel had a housekeeper and an assistant, owned a country house in Spring Lake, and had paid for a two-story log cabin on her son Hartley’s property in Vermont where she stayed throughout the year. She could paint all day.
One could argue that Neel’s later output reflects a fairly simple trajectory of a socialist artist betraying her values and distancing herself from poor people. It’s certainly accurate to say that Neel ended her life wealthier than she had begun it. But by my third visit to People Come First, I wondered whether this period of her work also expressed persistent sadness about her experiences as a poor white young mother who had lost two daughters in this rich city. Maybe as she aged out of her cash-strapped bohemian artist life, their memory propelled Neel to paint her sons and especially her daughter-in-law over and over—to keep them close out of a fear that they, too, might be taken. Maybe she felt a haunting self-loathing at the injustice of being richer than others in New York, at occupying a position she once ridiculed. Maybe she was both victim and agent of liberal individualist capitalism, painting New York’s movers and shakers not just to flatter them but in order to cement herself among them, out of anxiety she could again fall down the social ladder into poverty and obscurity.
[*] Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Neel gave birth to Isabetta at a free hospital run by the New York Medical College. While the hospital did offer many free and low-cost services, it also had some rooms aimed at people who could afford to pay higher rates. Additionally, many of the staff came from the NYMC, but the institutions weren’t officially affiliated until the 1930s.