Victoria and the Cat, Alice Neel

Alice Neel (American, 1900 - 1984) 

Victoria and the Cat, 1980 

Oil on canvas 

Bequest of Frederic Mueller, 1990 (6003.1) 

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 1930s she moved to Spanish Harlem, where she portrayed the gritty realities of life 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 in hangs in gallery 4 of the museum. 

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 the cat’s fur, especially the bushy tail, which is perhaps as close as the artist came to abstract expressionism.