With the possible exception of Andy Warhol, Alice Neel is the preeminent American portrait painter of the twentieth century. Neel's paintings grew out of the Social Realist concerns of American Art of the 1920s and 1930s, during which time she formed her highly personal brand of figuration, manifested in her seated portraits. From the outset, Alice Neel used family, friends and acquaintances as subjects, a practice she continued until her death in 1984.
The sitter in this painting is an eleven year old boy, Peter B. Kaplan, whose mother Lillian Kaplan, was a friend of the artist. During one of Lillian's visits to Neel's Spanish Harlem studio in 1950, the artist asked to paint Peter with Neel's cat on his lap. This portrait was completed over four months with at least six separate sittings. Peter would become a noted New York photographer, best known for his work related to the historic restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Concurrent with the execution of this painting, Joseph Solman, a fellow artist, curator and early supporter of Neel wrote, 'Alice Neel is primarily a painter of people. Waifs and poets, friends and Puerto Rican neighbors come in to sit for her-and she probes one without sermon or sentimentality. At times, an element of foreboding, akin to that in the work of Munch, creeps into her work; and there are portraits that are almost vivisections. But always her communication is so irresistibly direct that a great intensity infuses her work' (J. Solman, Alice Neel, New York, 1950).