Now on view in the Contemporary Gallery is American Array, a showcase of postmodern made-in-the-USA works from the museum’s collection. A favorite of visitors and museum staff alike is Alice Neel’s Victoria and the Cat. Here’s a closer look at the evocative painting, written by multiple curators over the years.
At a time when realism, especially portraiture, was eclipsed by the prevailing move toward abstraction in American art, Alice Neel remained committed to social realism and portraiture throughout her career. Few artists have mined their personal worlds so directly and intimately. During the Depression, Neel was one of the artists for the Works Progress Administration. In the 1930s she moved to Spanish Harlem, where she portrayed the gritty realities in the ghetto.
Portraiture became Neel’s forte, and although she did much to maintain and revive the tradition in the mid to later 20th century when others thought it had become an obsolete genre, she did not receive recognition until late in life. Neel styled herself a “collector of souls,” and she painted family, friends and acquaintances, including many figures in the art world of the time. Not one to flatter or sentimentalize her subjects, Neel abandoned the traditional elements of rigorous naturalism, distorting and manipulating the relationship of form, perspective, line, color, and anatomy to create portraits of uncompromising directness. She responded intuitively to the sitter and depicted what she saw and perceived, often producing psychologically intense images such as the portrait of the Brazilian sculptor Marisol which hangs in the portraiture gallery.
Neel’s portraits could also have a softer aspect, as in this painting of her granddaughter Victoria holding her calico cat. The work shows Neel’s process of first quickly sketching in outlines in blue paint and then adding color, usually leaving the background blank. This charming portrait is as much one of the cat as of Victoria. Neel obviously had fun painting that cat’s fur, especially the bushy tail, which is perhaps as close as the artist came to abstract expressionism.
American Array is on view through January 15, 2017.
Alice Neel (American, 1900 – 1984)
Victoria and the Cat, 1980
Oil on canvas
Bequest of Frederic Mueller, 1990
Bonus: It would appear that when nobody is looking Victoria’s cat leaps out of the painting and wanders around in the real world, as this photo captured in the museum parking lot shows.