Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Hartley and Richard Neel, the artist's sons 2001
Ethel Ashton, 1930, was painted at one of the most trying times in Alice Neel's life. In May of that year her husband, the Cuban artist Carlos Enríquez (1900-1957), had left her, moving out of their New York apartment and taking their daughter Isabella (called Isabetta, 1928-1982) to Havana to be raised by his two sisters. Penniless, Neel was forced to sublet the apartment and move back to her parents' home in Colwyn, Pennsylvania. Every day she would travel to Philadelphia to work at the studio of Ethel Ashton (1896-1975) and Rhoda Meyers, two friends from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art and Design), where Neel had studied between 1921 and 1925. In mid-August Neel suffered a nervous breakdown and by October she had been hospitalised in Philadelphia.
Of this time Neel later wrote, 'I worked at their studio every day. You can't imagine how I worked. I wouldn't have carfare; I wouldn't have enough for lunch. I had a terrible life.' ('Alice on Alice', in Patricia Hills, New York 1983.) In the short space of time that she worked in Meyers's and Ashton's studio, however, Neel painted a number of important early works, including portraits of both her friends, Rhoda Meyers with Blue Hat, 1930 (private collection), and Ethel Ashton. Neel was frustrated by the marginalised status of women artists and her nude portraits of Ashton and Meyers as painted models rather than artists in their own right deliberately court and complicate stereotypes of women.
Neel painted Ashton as a large, ungainly and hesitant looking figure. The deliberate awkwardness of the painting recalls the Expressionism of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976) or even the sculptures and prints of Ernst Barlach's (1870-1938). The position of the artist in relation to the sitter, above and off-centre, results in the distortion of the latter's body and features, emphasising her sagging fleshiness. Bright white light coming from the right of the painting accentuates the misshapen folds of flesh and gives the body an air of substantial, almost sculptural, bulkiness. The cropping of the figure and shallow setting add to a sense of anxiety; the overall effect is that of a reluctant, cornered goddess of fertility caught in the headlights of a vehicle.
'Don't you like her left leg on the right, that straight line?' Neel later wrote. 'You see, it's very uncompromising. I can assure you, there was no one in the country doing nudes like this. And also, it's great for Women's Lib, because she's almost apologizing for living.' (Quoted in Alice Neel: Paintings from the Thirties, 1997, p.66.) The painting itself is not apologetic; it is confident and uncompromising. It offers the viewer an uncomfortable but strongly depicted image of femininity. Curator Ann Temkin, discussing Neel's 1980 Self-portrait (private collection), describes it as 'not calculated to please anyone, least of all the misshapen sitter', adding, 'like much of Neel's work over the course of five decades, the painting is happy to look wrong.' ('Alice Neel: Self and Others', in Temkin, ed., 2000, p.13.) This is a description that could as easily be applied to Ethel Ashton.
Patricia Hills, Alice Neel, New York 1983, reproduced p.31 in colour
Denise Bauer, 'Alice Neel's Female Nudes', Woman's Art Journal, volume 15, number 2, Fall 1994/Winter 1995
Alice Neel: Paintings from the Thirties, exhibition catalogue, Robert Miller Gallery, New York 1997, reproduced p.67 in colour
Ann Temkin (ed.), Alice Neel, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 2000