ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)
ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)
ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)
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ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)
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ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling

Details
ALICE NEEL (1900-1984)
Neel, A.
Linus and Ava Helen Pauling
signed and dated 'NEEL 69' (lower left)
oil on canvas
48 x 42 in. (121.9 x 106.7 cm.)
Painted in 1969.
Provenance
Estate of the artist
Victoria Miro Gallery, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Exhibited
Naples Museum of Art, Duos: Alice Neel's Double Portraits, January-March 2002, p. 46 (illustrated).
Venice, L.A. Louver, Alice Neel: Paintings, In association with Jeremy Lewison Limited, May-June 2010.

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Lot Essay

A compassionate portrait of loved ones, Alice Neel’s Linus and Ava Helen Pauling is a sincere reflection of the artist’s heart, and a stunning example of Neel’s unparalleled skill and distinctive voice in figurative painting. Dear friends to the artist, and fellow advocates for social equality, the subjects of this portrait—Linus and Ava Helen Pauling—are rendered in delicate swaths of blues, greens and pinks. Captured beautifully with Neel’s signature, painterly hand, the seated couple assume the canvas with a quiet confidence and engage directly with the viewer.

Neel’s taxonomy of human expression made her legendary in painting. Her subjects were real people—not just models, but friends, fellow artists, and the neighbors around her. She has often been called a humanist by virtue of her commitment to figuration and the depiction of the complex inner lives of those she painted. Neel was a fierce activist and deeply involved in the social justice movements of her lifetime, which she expressed through her spirited and dynamic portrayals of multifarious individuals. While Neel’s sitters vary in identity and expression, they are unified through the artist’s purpose to paint the authenticity of their lives.

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling was executed in the summer of 1969 when Neel took a vacation from New York City and traveled west. After visiting her son Hartley and his fiancée Ginny in San Francisco, her friend arranged for her to visit the Paulings on their ranch in Big Sur. While there, she executed three paintings, one of Ava Helen, one of Linus—now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.­­—and the present work.

Neel’s connection to the Paulings is consistent with her passion for social issues. Linus and Ava Helen were an impressively well-rounded couple. Linus was a two-time recipient of the Nobel Prize—once in 1954 for chemistry and again in 1962 for peace activism—and Ava Helen was a revered advocate for women's rights, racial equality, and international peace. Neel’s honest and direct painting of the couple demonstrates her respect for their lifelong devotion to similar causes that fueled Neel’s purpose as a painter. Her rendering of their features is vivid and personal; the distinctive brushwork and color bringing their passions to life.

In her early twenties, Neel studied art at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. While there, she developed a style of painterly realism after the manner of Robert Henri, a former faculty member, which can be seen throughout her oeuvre. Henri was a member of the Ashcan School, an artistic movement during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which turned its focus away from the mythic and allegorical figures and towards depicting real people, especially those who were often historically excluded from portraiture. Neel, too, was drawn toward showing the authentic—gritty and beautiful—realities of humanity.

While she dedicated her life’s practice to painting, the present work represents an important shift in her late 1960s and 1970s paintings, whereby her brushwork became more abstracted, while paradoxically, her figures became more potent. Neel’s new, unconfined brushstrokes imbued her compositions with radiating energy and dynamism. To further emphasize the passion and activation of her mark-making, Neel sometimes subdued her backgrounds, allowing her sitters to be the focus. This simplification allows for nuanced details to emerge, such as the unexpected accents of navy blues and mossy greens that contour the figures, enlivening them with a transcendent glow.

Neel is unabashed in her realism and uses these bold colors to highlight parts of her sitters that others may shy away from. Speaking on the motivations behind her portraits, Neel said that she has “tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being,” (Alice Neel quoted in M. Gold, “Alice Neel Paints Scenes and Portraits from Life in Harlem,” Daily Worker, 27 December 1950, p. 11). This devotion is deeply felt in her authentic reflection of the present subjects. Neel’s reverence for Linus and Ava Helen’s many years of labored and arduous activism is meaningfully experienced in how Neel has presented them to viewers.

With expressive brushwork and a vivid palette, Neel masterfully breathes life into this portrait, painting both the subjects’ likenesses and the love that is shared between the sitters and Neel alike. A prime example from a critical apex in the artist’s seven-decade long career, Linus and Ava Pauling is representative of all which defines Neel’s practice: a sincerity of heart, a keen focus on the figure and their honest image, and a fearless wit of hand that employs portraiture beyond its traditional purpose into the realm of the painterly.

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