(Gift of Barbara Lee. © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Alice Neel (b. 1900)

Two Girls in Spanish Harlem, 1959

Displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Great Works, In Focus

Girl power

Alice Neel’s ‘Two Girls in Spanish Harlem’ speaks from the artist’s heart

Alice Neel’s “Two Girls in Spanish Harlem” (1959) is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. ((Gift of Barbara Lee; Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston))

Alice Neel lost interest in things. She got distracted. She left things hanging.

You see this in her work, which is strangely open-ended, like conversation.

Neel was good at double portraits. The challenge with any double portrait, you’d think, is to be fair — to not let one subject prevail over the other. But Neel (1900-1984) didn’t always play fair. In one of her double portraits, “The Wellesley Girls,” one of the two college girls looks focused, intense, engaged. The rendering of the other looks half-baked and clumsy. To Neel, it seems, she just wasn’t as interesting.

“Two Girls in Spanish Harlem,” which Neel painted in 1955, feels different. It’s uncanny how evenly and scrupulously the artist has attended to each child. The effect is redoubled, of course, by the rhyming tilt of their heads and the steady gaze both subjects return. It’s as if Neel, determined not to miss anything, hadn’t wanted to blink.

Alice Neel’s “Two Girls in Spanish Harlem” (1959) is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. ((Gift of Barbara Lee; Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston))

Painting two young girls may have had special meaning for Neel. In 1925, she had married an upper-class Cuban painter, Carlos Enríquez. They moved to Havana, where they lived in a mansion with seven servants and where, the following year, Neel gave birth to her first daughter, Santillana. They then returned to New York, where, a month shy of her first birthday, Santillana died of diphtheria.

A second child, Isabetta, came along in 1928. But in 1930, telling Neel he was going to Paris to find a home for them, Enríquez instead took Isabetta back to Cuba. Undone by the loss of a husband and two daughters, Neel had a mental breakdown, became suicidal and was hospitalized for a year.

In 1938, she moved with her lover, the Puerto Rican singer José Santiago, from Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem, where she hoped to find “more truth,” she said. “There is more truth in the ghettos than there is in all these festival places.”

What is truth? Is it the same as suffering?

Look at these two girls’ faces, and especially the slightly watery eyes of the girl on the left, and you feel it might be so. But Neel’s portraits are too alive and restless to be tragic. Like the portraits of Vincent van Gogh, they are about immediacy. The urgency in the paint work is matched to the hiccupping rhythms of human rapport.

Many kinds of damage are beyond repair. But they can be ameliorated. And what ameliorated Neel’s heartache was each new human connection: the sympathy, the noticing, the sense that being here, with you, in this moment and the next, might be funneled into an art that feels indistinguishable from life.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.