2 to Grow On

If you ever just want to check out some paintings of a slightly different ilk here are two artists that took the road less traveled.

Henri Rousseau

I first experienced Rousseau as a kid at the Philadelphia Museum of Art but I’ve now seen much more of his artwork in other museums since then and have gotten to know a lot more about him as a person through reading as well.
In the Philadelphia Museum of Art there is a gallery devoted to European Art from about 1850-1900. There are approximately 15 rooms of artwork in that particular gallery. Room after room of fuzzy, soft, paintings of people and flowers and the gently sloping fields of grass. And then probably some more flowers. Every once in a while you get a bright jolt of yellow gold from a van Gogh but mostly Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Renoir and artists who paint in similar styles.
Then – BOOM. Rousseau. A bold, simple, and well defined palette. Nice clean edges where one element stops and another begins. A jungle amid fields of french flowers. Wild animals instead of plump female bathers. As a kid, how could I not be amused and intrigued? [To be perfectly fair there are some stunning pieces in the European Art gallery including the above mentioned artists as well as statues by Rodin and Degas and other paintings such as The Moorish Chief by Eduard Charlemont and Il Saltimblanco by Antonio Mancini.]
And as an adult I still feel that way when I see a Rousseau – the “Ah! Now that’s something different” feeling – that is almost like a burst of fresh air for my eyes.

Alice Neel

A Philadelphia painter noted for her portraiture, Neel didn’t gain much recognition until very late in her career. She worked as an artist for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from the early 30’s to the mid-40’s. She was involved artistically, socially and romantically with a collection of artists, communists, and intellectuals throughout her life. In the 70’s, with the development of the women’s movement, she became more well known.
I don’t actually remember seeing any of Neel’s paintings until I was in my 30’s. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has some of her work although I don’t know when the pieces were acquired or when they might have been on display in the galleries. In any case, the first work I saw of Neel’s was 2 Girls, Spanish Harlem (1959) on the front of a postcard sent to me by my mother.
Neel’s portraits are intimate, expressionistic, and somewhat off-putting. Her subjects were frequently friends, neighbors, and lovers. One portrait, painted in the 60’s, is a portrait of her youngest son Hartley and titled, not surprisingly, Hartley (1965). It is a great example of her work. Hartley is wearing a white t-shirt and chinos with his hands locked behind his head. The muted colors of the painting match his impassive expression. Behind him is essentially a sketch, the barest impression, of a room. He is the sole focus, he competes with nothing and the viewer is drawn to his face. His attractive yet unreadable face.
I don’t feel glee when seeing Neel’s work – it’s more of a feeling of wary curiosity – about the sitters, what Neel and her subject(s) discussed during the process of portrait painting, and how the sitters reacted to their paintings.