ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)
ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)
ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)
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ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)
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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection
ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)

Pregnant Bette Homitzky

ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)
Pregnant Bette Homitzky
signed and dated 'NEEL '68' (lower right); signed again, titled and dated again 'PREGNANT BETTY - 1968 ALICE NEEL' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
60 x 36 in. (152.4 x 91.4 cm.)
Painted in 1968.
Estate of Alice Neel
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1987
P. Hills, Alice Neel, New York, 1983, p. 133 (illustrated).
N. Princenthal, "About Faces: Alice Neel's Portraits," Parkett, 1988, pp. 8 and 16, no. 16 (illustrated).
P. Allara, ""Matter" of fact: Alice Neel's Pregnant Nudes," American Art, vol. 8, no. 2, 1994, pp. 24 and 26, no. 17 (illustrated).
C. Carr, Alice Neel: Women, New York, 2002, p. 149 (illustrated).
C. Kino, "A Grandson Paints a Portrait of a Portraitist," New York Times, April 2007.
A. Hottle, The Art of the Sister Chapel: Exemplary Women, Visionary Creators, and Feminist Collaboration, Burlington, 2014, p. 141, no. 4.15 (illustrated).
Alice Neel: People Come First, exh. cat., New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2021, pp. 41-42, no. 25 (illustrated).
New York, David Zwirner, Alice Neel: Freedom, February-April 2019, pp. 72-73 and 109 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

A colorful, tender portrait, Pregnant Betty Homitzky elevates the quiet moments of everyday life. Standing at nearly life size, the canvas is a window into a private world. The seated figure is both delicate and strong as her eyes draw us into the scene, the result of Neel’s characteristically skilled application of paint and her sensitive gaze. The power of Pregnant Betty Homitzky lies in the fact that Neel “was sympathetic to the plight endured by her individual subjects” (P. Allara, “’Mater’ of Fact: Alice Neel’s Pregnant Nudes,” American Art, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring 1994, p. 30). As the postwar avant-garde rejected figuration in favor of abstraction, Neel continued to see value in representing the human form as a gesture of interconnectedness and community. In so doing, she charted her own history of art, one that centered the daily joys and struggles of the people around her.

Widely reproduced in the literature on Neel, and exhibited in two key solo shows, Pregnant Betty Homitzky is a visual conversation between the artist, her subject, and art history itself. In the mid-1960s, Neel found that many of her friends were pregnant, and she sought to document and process these changes. Homitzky was also an artist herself, working as a fine art photographer and as a skilled hand retoucher of photographs. With this mutual understanding, Neel was able to reach the unguarded essence of her sitter, whose body seems to emerge from swaths of yellow and green pigment that recall Color Field painting of the 1940s and 1950s. Homitzky is statuesque, but not idealized. Neel does not shy away from the transformations and fragility inherent in the pregnant body, but she also lends it an unperturbable, sculptural presence with her skillful modelling and shadow. Homitzky is both an individual and a timeless archetype. The spareness of the scene further lends a monumentality to it, and Neel’s careful unsettling of perspective generates a sense of mystery around her subject’s inner life. As the artist reflects, “I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being,” and this sentiment is undoubtedly apparent in this pivotal canvas (A. Neel, quoted in S. Stamberg, “Alice Neel’s Paintings Meet the Moment at the Met,” NPR, May 14, 2021).

Pregnant Betty Homitzky, an audacious canvas in its day, evokes a long history of images of maternity and pregnancy. An important comparison is with Mary Cassatt’s work, such as Maternity (1897, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) or Children Playing with a Dog (1907). Cassatt used the tenets of Impressionism to explore the domestic sphere, just as Neel harnessed painting to her own ends. We might also consider Lucien Freud’s Pregnant Girl (1960-1961), which is both compassionate and unidealized. Despite being primarily representational, Pregnant Betty Homitzky has abstract qualities as well that connect it to Louise Bourgeois’s Pregnant Woman II (1947-1949/1980) or Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nana pregnant (Last night I had a dream) (1968). Finally, Pregnant Betty Homitzky exists coextensively with other practitioners of representational portraiture of the 1960s, such as George Segal and his Pregnant Woman (1966) sculpture.

Studies of pregnant women occupied Neel from 1964-1978, during which time she painted only seven such canvases—five reclining, and only two seated, including the present example. The pregnant nude body is “a subject all but unprecedented in Western art history,” and Neel approaches it unflinchingly and empathetically (P. Allara, “’Mater’ of Fact: Alice Neel’s Pregnant Nudes,” American Art, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring 1994, p. 7). This shift came as interest in Neel’s work intensified. In 1970, two years after the creation of Pregnant Betty Homitzky, she painted a famous portrait of activist Kate Millett for her Time magazine cover, and in 1974, Neel mounted her first retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Neel had become a cherished and visible figure in postwar art by the time of her death in 1984. Most recently, the acclaimed retrospective Alice Neel: People Come First (2021) opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and traveled to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and the de Young Museum, San Francisco. Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle, the largest exhibition of Neel’s work in the United Kingdom, is currently on view at the Barbican Centre, London after originating at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris last year.

Pregnant Betty Homitzky is among the most affecting of Neel’s rare and genre-defining pregnant nudes. Always unafraid to pursue bold subject matter in her paintings, Neel combined the heroic and intimate qualities of the medium to extraordinary ends. Though it is impossible to know what Homitzsky is thinking, what is certain is that this canvas suggests a horde of emotions within a purposefully minimal scene. Pregnant Betty Homitzky is a testament to painting’s ability to represent all that goes unsaid.

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