Alice Neel’s Benjamin Art light mood, dark truth

Little boy blue

The great US portraitist Alice Neel’s Benjamin depicts her landlord’s son. Its mood, as light as a helium balloon floating away on a summer’s day, was hard won.

Not a number

When Neel began painting her neighbours in Spanish Harlem in the 1940s and 50s, urban deprivation was becoming a subject for national debate. While the civil rights movement gathered pace, she painted those immediately around her, cutting through statistics by putting individuals in the frame.

Under pressure

These early paintings often have an anxious energy. Subjects don’t need a knife in hand, like teenager Georgie Arce, to suggest the myriad pressures they live with.

I will survive

Like her subjects, Neel had a survival story: her first child died and her second was taken by her husband. She then became a single mum to two boys, scratching out a living as a painter.

Up and away?

By the time she painted Benjamin, her work had been discovered and she was as likely to be painting New York’s in-crowd as the socially excluded. Her project of empathy and inclusion feels ever more relevant now.

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