ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)
ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)
ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)
1 More
ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)
4 More
ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)

David McKee and his First Wife Jane

ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)
David McKee and his First Wife Jane
signed and dated 'NEEL '68' (centre left)
oil on canvas
59 7⁄8 x 40 1⁄8in. (152.1 x 102cm.)
Painted in 1968
Estate of Alice Neel, New York.
Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Philadelphia, Locks Gallery, Alice Neel: Paintings and Drawings, 2005, pp. 11 and 34 (illustrated in colour, p. 35).
Seoul, Gallery Hyundai, People and Places: Paintings by Alice Neel, 2013, p. 42, no. 12 (illustrated in colour, p. 43).
Canberra, National Gallery of Australia, 2022-2023 (on short-term loan).

Brought to you by

Claudia Schürch
Claudia Schürch Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

A striking portrait of the eminent New York gallerist and his partner, David McKee and his First Wife Jane (1968) is a work of great elegance and character dating from a pivotal moment in Alice Neel’s career. Rendered in crisp, intimately-observed detail, the painting depicts the couple side by side, Jane’s hand draped over her husband’s leg. Light and shadow dance across their faces and clothes, animated by delicate washes of colour. Their knees touch tenderly; their gazes, by contrast, never meet. The work is a masterful demonstration of Neel’s ability to capture a moment in time, steeped in personal narrative. These qualities took flight in her work of the 1960s: a decade that saw her gain new waves of recognition among galleries, institutions and New York’s cultural elite, many of whom she depicted in her portraits. Included in Neel’s first solo show in Asia in 2013, and most recently hung at the National Gallery Australia in dialogue with de Kooning’s masterpiece Woman V, David McKee and his First Wife Jane is exemplary of the artist's extraordinary commitment to portraiture and storytelling, capturing the individuals and communities who touched her life.

David McKee was good friends with Neel, and was influential in introducing her to the eminent dealers, gallerists and critics of the Upper West Side. At the time of this portrait McKee was working for Marlborough Gallery: he would later open his own space, McKee Gallery, where he represented artists including Philip Guston. Describing Neel as a ‘wonderfully entertaining and amusing, kind person’, McKee acknowledged that ‘she was very gifted’ (Oral history interview with David McKee, 30 June 2009). Indeed, it was McKee who convinced Jane and Richard Lang to have Richard’s portrait painted by Alice Neel. The eminent collector was initially dreaming of a portrait by Andy Warhol or Francis Bacon, but McKee swiftly introduced him to Neel, who had just completed her first major retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1974. In 1978, Lang sat for her, resulting in a discerning representation that now sits in the permanent collection of the Seattle Museum of Art. McKee described how ‘Dick loved Alice Neel. They were two ornery people who got along famously’ (B. Guenter, The Collectors. Prelude to a Gift,

Hailed for its fearless, unflinching candour, Neel’s art was celebrated in a major retrospective at the Barbican in 2023: her largest UK exhibition to date. Though part of a long history of Western portraiture—her works prompt comparison with those of David Hockney and Mary Cassatt—the artist refused to follow any particular rules, conventions or expectations, forging a career painting with unabashed independence. Eschewing the Greenbergian theory of ‘art for art’s sake’ that dominated post-war American art, Neel stood firmly by her commitment to painting, and her dedication to people, culture and lives. She described herself as an ‘anarchic humanist’, seeking to capture the essence of her subjects. Her discerning portraits, often likened to the photography of their time, collectively tell a story of American culture, identity and migration. Painting the vast majority of her portraits from her apartment, Neel worked to achieve an open and liberating space for her sitters, engaging in deep conversations over often lengthy stints of painting. Two years after the present work, she would depict Warhol upon the same sofa as David and Jane McKee: the work is now housed in the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In an interview with Diana Loercher in 1974, Neel explained that she aimed to capture both ‘the essence of the person’ and ‘the zeitgeist’, noting that ‘I think that art is also history’ (A. Neel in conversation with D. Loercher, ‘Alice Neel, American Portraitist’, The Christian Science Monitor, 4 March 1974, p. F6). The 1960s, significantly, saw Neel adopt an alternative milieu and the artist began to experience new commercial success. In 1963 she joined Graham Gallery and received a slew of positive criticism from of the city’s most eminent critics. In 1965, Jack Kroll described Neel as a ‘Curator of Souls’ and ‘the most powerfully original portrait painter of her time’ in Newsweek.

Neel frequently foregrounded subtle sartorial details in her portraits to define her sitter’s characters. In David McKee and his First Wife Jane, the couple’s gleaming polished shoes and elongated, delicate hands suggest sophistication and affluence. The intense cobalt blue of McKee’s suit accentuates the crisp blue outlines of the two figures, a signature of Neel’s later work and an imprint of her process; the artist used a stiff paintbrush to map the outline of her sitter before applying colour. Indeed, the 1960s saw a renewed, energetic style and an expanded palette of vivid hues that signified Neel’s self-assuredness as a portrait painter. This confidence is exemplified in her deft handling of her sitters’ gazes. Despite the physical hints of intimacy between McKee and his wife, their eyes remain distant and averted—neither meeting each other’s, the artist’s, or the viewer’s. Coupled with its suggestive title, Neel’s double portrait hints at an underlying fissure in their bond. In this, the work demonstrates her ability to capture her sitters holistically, recording not just a single static scene but a series of rich and detailed micro-interactions. The couple come to life upon the canvas, in all their magnetic, enigmatic complexity.

More from 20th / 21st Century: London Evening Sale

View All
View All