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. A watercolour portrait of Doolittle painted possibly a little later in the year (Kenneth Doolittle, 1931, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., reproduced in Temkin, ed., 2000, p.86 in colour) shows him sitting on a rocking chair in a more relaxed pose, wearing slippers and what appears to be a bright orange jumpsuit. His expression, however, is still intense, fixed and frowning.
Neel and Doolittle moved in together in early 1932. They lived in the Greenwich Village area of New York until the artist moved out in December 1934 after Doolittle, in a fit of jealous rage, had slashed or burnt a large number of her early works. She later recalled, 'Kenneth Doolittle cut up and burned about sixty paintings and two hundred drawings and watercolors in our apartment at 33 Cornelia Street. Also, he burned my clothing. He had no right to do that. I don't think he would have done that if he hadn't been a dope addict. He had a coffee can full of opium that looked like tar off the street. And it was a frightful act of male chauvinism: that he could control me completely. I had to run out of the apartment or I would have had my throat cut. That was a traumatic experience as he had destroyed a lot of my best work, things I had done before I ever knew he existed. It took me years to get over it.' (Quoted in Alice Neel: Paintings from the Thirties, 1997, p.32.) According to curator Ann Temkin, although Doolittle was supposedly jealous of another man, he 'directed his anger at her work, his true rival in Neel's life.' ('Self and Others', in Temkin, ed., 2000, p.17.)
Patricia Hills, Alice Neel, New York 1983
Alice Neel: Paintings from the Thirties, exhibition catalogue, Robert Miller Gallery, New York 1997, reproduced p.33 in colour
Ann Temkin, ed., Alice Neel, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 2000
Technique and condition
The painting has been traditionally executed. The canvas has been commercially prepared and the paint has then been applied with a series of small and medium-sized brushes.
The layer structure for the painting is slightly confusing. A deep red and paste-like paint lies below the grey backgound paint suggesting some re-consideration of the composition. This is particularly evident in the top left and right corners of the work. The raking light photograph also shows underlying brushwork which does not relate to the present composition. The sitter has been executed in thin washes of paint, aspects of this then being fortified with impasted outlines. The sitter's face is deathly pale and the translucency of the aged man's skin is emphasised by the translucency of the paint used to describe it. Similarly the vulnerability and fragility of the sitter is emphasised by his proportionally tiny head. The sitter's hand grips the end of the walking stick as if it is his life-line.
The support of painting has been damaged at some stage and has been lined. During the lining process areas of impasto appear to have been flattened. There have been many episodes of loss to the paint film. Ultra violet light reveals areas of retouching particularly within the area of the sitter. More recent damages remain in need of repair.
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