New York

Alice Neel

Robert Miller Gallery

Alice Neel embarked on motherhood with singularly negative feelings about it. “I had my first baby in Cuba, without anything to alleviate the pain. It was frightful! Eight hours of intense agony!” That baby died of diphtheria in 1927. Her second, Isabetta, was born in 1928, the year Neel painted her expressionistic Well Baby Clinic, in which grotesque mothers tend horrid babies: “I wondered how that woman could be so happy, with that little bit of hamburger she’s fixing the diaper for.” By 1930, Isabetta had been taken away to Cuba; Neel remained in New York to have a nervous breakdown. “I should have had some birth control thing,” she said later, “because I was then simply an ambitious artist. When people would mewl over little kids, I just wanted to paint them.”

Nowhere is Neel’s attitude toward motherhood more vividly portrayed than in her paintings of pregnant women, a subject she returned to throughout her career. From her harrowing realism in Childbirth, 1939, to the colorful, homely fluidity of Margaret Evans Pregnant, 1978, Neel relished the subject’s inherent contradictions. Here was something guaranteed to make viewers uncomfortable; blood-engorged bodies—pink-tipped at the extremities, skin stretched over throbbing blue veins, outlines distended into brutal, voluptuous curves—proved delectable to an artist whose portraiture could carry a tinge of cruelty. She did not care to idealize, seeking the sad and unexpected beauty in the uglier side of life.

Not that Neel was always harsh. In Julie and Algis, 1967, Algis, dressed in rumpled clothes, protectively holds his arm around his naked, pregnant wife Julie as he suspiciously eyes the viewer—and, one presumes, the artist. Neel includes a coverlet of riotous red flowers but leaves a lot of vacant canvas, a signature device suggesting to the viewer that she painted in a hurry. Julie is not yet in an advanced stage of pregnancy; Neel painted her hands, feet, and nipples delicately, and her red pubic hair and labia conspicuously, to show that pregnancy does not obliterate sexiness. By contrast, in Pregnant Betty Homitsky, 1968, the subject balances her huge torso, with pendulous udders, on skinny arms. She sits on a green splotch that looks as if something had leaked out of her; her flared nostrils and slightly parted lips seem to gasp for air.

While Neel’s depictions can be rough, they are never gratuitously so. The pregnant Margaret Evans looks happy, smiling slightly, though her reflected image in a mirror shows an uglier person that Neel caricatures in a few ruthless curves. In 1971 Neel depicted her own pregnant daughter-in-law, Nancy, reclining on a couch; above her hovers the ghostly face of Neel’s son Richard, a presence not unlike that haunting Gauguin’s young wife in Manao tupapau (The spirit of the dead keeping watch), 1892. “Look at the painting of Nancy pregnant,” wrote Neel. “It’s almost tragic the way the top part of her body is pulling the ribs.” Yet that body is so alive, its nipples tumescent, the skin changing color from warm oranges and pinks to a deathly green. While these paintings take aim at the ideology of maternity, which veils the painful facts of pregnancy, the awful truth paradoxically takes on a raw, colorful glory.

Faye Hirsch