WASHINGTON — When painter Alice Neel finished her 1964 portrait of Julie Hall, a college-age friend of one of the artist's children, Neel offered it to the young woman's mother, who declined it — because the sitter was not smiling. Based on some of the other images in "Alice Neel's Women," a long-overdue look at the work of the great portrait painter at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, a poker face was the least of the mother's worries.
Neel, you see, just wasn't very good at flattery.
Sure, there are some pretty pictures in the show. But Neel, who called herself a "collector of souls," was far better at capturing something ineffable, true — yet often hidden — about her subjects than she was at making them feel good about themselves. With sitters posed in frank, starkly frontal postures, emotionally exposed and sometimes literally naked, Neel's portraiture is as raw and unidealized as the frequently unfinished canvases and slightly off-kilter compositions that are the artist's hallmark. She wasn't done when she'd filled in every inch of the canvas with paint, or when she'd fixed your likeness, but when she'd gotten you.
Every bit of you. And if you happened to be naked, except for a pair of shoes, and spread-eagle on a couch — as was the case with 19-year-old Standard Oil heiress Pat Ladew, who was so discomfited by her own 1949 portrait that she eventually traded it back to the artist for a still life — oh, well.
And that's if Neel liked you. Woe unto you if you chanced to wind up on Neel's bad side. That's what happened, apparently, to Audrey McMahon. The 1940 portrait of McMahon, described on the wall label, with dramatic flourish, as Neel's "nemesis," brings such hideous distortion of its subject to bear — a stick-like forearm and clawed hand; dark, sunken eyes; and a cruel, pinched mouth — that it makes Cruella De Vil look like Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
It is, however, Neel's famous 1980 self-portrait, depicting the white-haired artist unashamedly naked at age 80, and with a paintbrush, naturally, that tells us the most about this remarkable artist. Not just about her ability to penetrate beneath the facade, but about her perverse affection for our flaws.
"Alice Neel's Women" will run through Jan. 15 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, Washington D.C. For more information visit www.nmwa.org.