Neel was born in Pennsylvania in 1900. She attended the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and counted the expressionist portraits of Edvard Munch and Oskar Kokoschka as early influences.
She regularly experienced economic and romantic woes, and was saved from penury by the Public Works of Art Project introduced by President Roosevelt in the 1930s. This gave her a small but regular wage.
Neel lived much of her life in the Spanish Harlem neighbourhood of New York City, painting its largely working-class inhabitants. She was thus isolated from the heart of the city’s art scene. Only after settling in an apartment on the Upper West Side in 1962 did Neel start to receive critical attention and move in more established circles.
Among her most famous paintings is a portrait of Andy Warhol from 1970 (today part of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s collection).
Neel’s works are characterised by their humanity, albeit also by a frankness reminiscent of the portraits of Lucian Freud. Often her subjects are nude — the artist even captured herself in this manner in old age, in a well-known self-portrait from 1980. She painted a large number of pregnant women nude too.
Neel described herself as ‘a collector of souls’ and never discriminated on grounds such as class, gender or race when it came to choosing her subjects. In 1955, she even asked to paint two FBI agents, who had come to question her about her connections with the Communist party (they declined).
Neel produced streetscapes, still lifes and interiors too. In May 2021, Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room, a painting from 1966 of her doctor’s waiting room, sold for $3.03 million at Christie’s. This set a record for the most expensive price ever paid for a work by Neel at auction.
The artist received her first retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974. She died 10 years later.