'Her work declares an appetite for experience, has a patent and shaming honesty, is indifferent to rules and hierarchies... She has courage, not least in her choice of sitter: it seems that, the more stressful the sitting, the better the painting. As I get older I feel, increasingly and dauntingly, that artists have to be heroes. Alice Neel is one of mine.' (F. Auerbach quoted in, Alice Neel Painted Truths, exh. cat, Houston, 2009, p. 93)
Unflinchingly figurative and defiantly a woman painter who worked in the face of white male American Expressionism, Alice Neel was one of the greatest American portraitists of her time and a pioneer among women artists. Persistent and determined in her pursuit of portraiture at a time when its was widely deemed to be the most unfashionable of genres, the originality and quiet power of her work ultimately came to be recognised in the wake of her first retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1974. Since this time her reputation has since grown to the point where she has gained a unique and iconic status in the history of American painting. In July the first retrospective exhibition of her work in Europe, opened at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and this major re-evaluation of her oeuvre is now currently on show at the Moderna Museet in Malmö.
For most of her professional life however, Neel, who died in 1984, worked in relative obscurity. It was not until the 1960s when she consciously engaged with the art world, that she first made her critical breakthrough with portraits of artists, curators and gallery owners; Andy Warhol, Frank O'Hara and Meyer Shapiro among them. Yet it was the search for a deep psychological truth rather than the portrayal of superficial beauty, status or celebrity which motivated her. This portrait of Mary Shoemaker, painted in 1965, at the birth of her burgeoning popularity is a testament to the fact that she painted people not because they were famous, but because they were interesting.
Neel chose her subjects among the rich and poor, neighbours and strangers, family members and friends. Mary Shoemaker was a stranger. It was a chance encounter in a bank that brought the pair together and Shoemaker agreed to sit for Neel. The work is one of a series of portraits in which striking headwear or interesting pieces of clothing are prominent, and indeed, perhaps it was Shoemakers hat that first attracted Neel to her. An enthusiastic chronicler of the zeitgeist, Neel no doubt saw in Shoemaker's hat and gloves, tweed skirt and high collar an expression of an age and of a class; 'a woman who, although living in the mid-1960s amidst profound social change, recalled an era in which a woman of a certain standing never appeared in public without her hat and gloves, a woman who was shaped by the need to be proper and one who was either unwilling or unable to break from this mold.' (C. Carr, Alice Neel: Women, New York 2002).
As a genre, portraiture focuses primarily on the portrayal of likeness and, in the true spirit of the academic tradition, the representation is generally a flattering one. Neel revitalised that model of portraiture by exploring the potential of composition and colour to convey an emotional as well as a physical truth, a specific individual reality as opposed to a general essence of humanity. Lost in personal reverie, or perhaps politely averting her eyes from the artists interrogative gaze, Shoemaker strikes a demure pose. Strong earthy tones and exuberant strokes of paint belie the quiet nature of her expression, yet there is a fleeting hint of anxiety perhaps in her wide eyes and tightly pressed lips.
The warm tones of her flesh are reflected in the background, sketchy blocks of colour serving to emphasise the strong contours of the figure, characteristically outlined in black. Her limbs reach beyond the edges of the canvas, highlighting her close proximity to the viewer, a sense heightened by the dynamic and intense painterly quality of the work. Yet her averted gaze prevents any engagement. It is a portrait of contradictions.
This search for the identity of her subject was informed by the struggles and contradictions of Neel's own life. 'I get so identified when I paint them, when they go home I feel frightful. I have no self- I've gone into this other person' (A. Neel, quoted in P. Hills, Alice Neel, New York, 1983). Neel's strong modernist edge with its echoes of American social realism and European Expressionism began to resonate with audiences in the mid-1970s when, held up as an icon of the women's movement, feminist support became key to her belated recognition. A working mother, with stories of personal tragedy and tumultuous relationships, Neel carried on painting in spite and indeed because of those struggles. In many ways, it was art that had saved her. It was her retreat. 'The minute I sat in front of a canvas,' she said, 'I was happy. Because it was a world and I could do as I liked in it.' (ibid.)