Crystal Bridges is pleased to announce the acquisition of a portrait of actor Hugh Hurd (1925-1995), by Alice Neel (1900-1984).
Neel is one of the most important American portrait painters of the twentieth century. During her decades-long career, Neel resisted the fashionable avant-garde art movements of the era that favored abstraction or conceptual art. She painted subjects of personal interest to her: the people in her everyday life. Through her use of flat, unmixed color, bold outlines, and expressive brushstrokes, she captured the intimate details of an individual’s personality, instilling her own impressions of her sitters into striking portraits filled with character, complexity, and vulnerability.
Born near Philadelphia in 1900, Neel attended the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art & Design). She moved to New York City in the 1930s and became an artist with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). During this time she also involved herself in leftist politics, an influence that carried through her entire career. Neel often portrayed people living at the margins of society who were overlooked based on economic status, race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality.
In 1950 she proclaimed “There isn’t much good portrait painting being done today, and I think it is because with all this war, commercialism and fascism, human beings have been steadily marked down in value, despised, rejected and degraded.”
Neel’s tumultuous personal life was marked by personal tragedy and struggle, including a failed marriage to a Cuban artist, the loss of an infant daughter to diphtheria in 1926, and romantic liaisons with three married men, as well as one volatile Merchant Marine who once burned more than 300 of her paintings in a fit of rage.
Considering Neel’s unconventional lifestyle, it is perhaps less surprising that she went her own way with her artwork as well. Her portraits are hardly “pretty’;” Neel depicted her subjects with warts, flabby flesh, and all, and used her brush to express the painful inner soul of her sitters as much as their outward appearance. Although she focused on portraits, her work has been described as “expressionistic.” She once stated “I don’t do realism.” Instead, she sought to reveal the psychological state of her subjects, and by association, their world at large.
Neel lived and worked in New York City’s Spanish Harlem neighborhood for many years, and painted many of the everyday people she met there. “I decided to paint a human comedy…” she said. “I painted the neurotic, the mad and the miserable. Also I painted the others, including some ‘Squares.’ …. I am a collector of Souls.”
Although throughout her youth, her work was virtually overlooked, Neel finally caught the eye of the art world later in life, and painted portraits of many important art figures of the day, including Andy Warhol, Faith Ringgold, Marisol, and New York Mayor Ed Koch. She enjoyed several years of public acclaim, professional respect, and personal success until her death in 1984.
The man featured in this work, Hugh Hurd (1925-1995), was an actor and civil rights activist in the 1950s and ‘60s. In Along with Maya Angelou, Hurd helped to organize one of the first benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in New York City, and he was a co-founder of the Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers in 1962.
Alice Neel’s portrait of Hugh Hurd will go on view the evening of February 1 in the Recent Acquisitions niche in the Museum’s permanent collection galleries (located in the Colonial and Early Nineteenth-Century Gallery). There will be a special Members Preview unveiling event especially for Crystal Bridges Members beginning at 6 p.m.