Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Hartley and Richard Neel, the artist's sons 2001
Kitty Pearson is the portrait of a flamboyant young graduate who had recently studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, based in Providence, Rhode Island. The sitter had been introduced to Neel by Nancy Selvage, a close friend of the artist's daughter-in-law Virginia (Ginny) Neel. Both Selvage and Pearson developed close friendships with the artist.
The setting for the work is the front room of Neel's West 107 Street apartment in New York, to where she had moved from her Spanish Harlem home in 1962. This room also functioned as the artist's studio and became the backdrop to the majority of her paintings from 1962 until her death. A pale blue wash sketches its walls, golden ochre indicates its hardwood floor: these simple tactics, repeated in the works painted in this room, became signifiers that placed Neel's sitters firmly in this familiar background.
Kitty Pearson is an example of what developed into Neel's signature style: bright, large-scale portraits of one or more subjects defined by a thick black or blue contour line. The physical 'imperfections' of the sitters' bodies are highlighted rather than glossed over by the artist. Here the painting captures the subject's individuality and self-conscious nudity, which is significantly emphasised by the oversized hat that she is wearing. Pearson's frontal pose and distracted look evoke Matisse's Carmelina, c.1903-04 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), while her body language and facial expression lend the painting a sense of underlying anxiety.
Bold and unsentimental, Kitty Pearson is characteristic of Neel's self-assured and frank depictions of the female nude, which have been seen to generate 'a compelling feminist portrayal of feminine experience' by Denise Bauer, writer and Professor of Women's Studies at the State University of New York. (Denise Bauer, 'Alice Neel's Female Nudes', Woman's Art Journal, volume 15, number 2, Fall 1994/Winter 1995, p.21).
Denise Bauer, 'Alice Neel's Female Nudes', Women's Art Journal, volume 15, number 2, Fall 1994/Winter 1995
Ann Temkin ed., Alice Neel, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 2000