Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Hartley and Richard Neel, the artist's sons 2001
Kenneth Doolittle 1931 is the portrait of a sailor who Alice Neel had met in September of the same year in New Jersey. In stark contrast to the opulent fleshiness of other works from the same period such as Ethel Ashton 1930 (Tate L02332), Doolittle is depicted fully clothed, his face a stony mask, grey, dour, with deep etched lines and black rings under staring eyes. There is only a hint of warmer colour in some areas of his nose and chin which only just picks up the tone of his vivid red tie.
The subjects of many of Neel's portraits (see, for example, Ethel Ashton 1930, and Kitty Pearson 1973, Tate L02332 and L02446) appear uncomfortable under the gaze of the artist and this is often expressed by the way in which they look away or back at the artist. Indeed, as curator Richard Flood has written, 'it is hard to find a painting in which Neel does not use the sitter's eyes as a point of entry into the picture' ('Gentlemen Callers: Alice Neel and the Art World', in Temkin, ed., 2000, p.60.) In this portrait Doolittle stares straight out of the painting with a resolute frown which challenges both the artist and viewer to return his gaze…