Neel’s Son Hartley: Master Portrait Study

Alice Neel
oil on canvas 
National Gallery of Art USA



Some of the notes I had jotted down while painting: “His left eyebrow.” “Cocky.” “Super thin body, lounging back in the chair.” Hartley leans back in the chair so that his torso is slightly curled inward, his legs and arms open wide, exposing his chest and protruding groin. It’s interesting because this study is painted on a 12 x 9 inch sheet of bristol board, small scale compared to the original painting which measures 50 x 36 inches. It would be apparent when looking at the original painting, for someone of my average height, that Hartley’s stomach and groin area are at eye level. Truly a strange composition for a mother to choose to paint of her son. But then again Alice Neel does not shy from oversharing her children’s bodies. 

For one, Neel had painted her prepubescent daughter fully nude, standing in a hotel room, three-quarters turned looking directly at the viewer. If she lived today perhaps she would document every one of his milestones on social media. But Neel knew the reception of this portrait of her son, at least I like to think so. After being absorbed in this painting I get the same sort of feeling as I do after reading a Tennessee Williams short story or watching a Tarkovsky film. Sounds pretentious I know. But it is true. A stillness and a comfort like comradery, an empathy that is warm and cozy, like a community of like-minded people. So, in effect, the posture Harley exhibits is tame, almost commonplace, within the oeuvre of Neel’s portraits. Hartley had just arrived back home after leaving medical school at Boston University, the sole reason being his refusal to work on cadavers. 

I found that copying a painting that uses thick outlines is more difficult since that’s not the way I paint a figure. To copy the painting accurately I found I had to outline over the shapes of the figure with blue after I had completed the body shape. I did not try to change my painting style or mimic the way Neel painted her figures. I just tried to copy her portrait the way I would copy a still life or a landscape. 

One technical thing I learned while painting was that the shadow side of the figure used entirely warm hues of each color- the cadmium red medium, ultramarine blue, and cadmium yellow medium, while the light side of the face used the cool tones of alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow light and phlatho blue. It’s what I always learned in those books that teach you about painting realistically, but that I do not follow in my own portraits. Perhaps I’ll try to be more disciplined next portrait and try this tried and true technique. 

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