Hartley with a Cat
While I was drawing together this little conjecture something occurred to me. It was as if I were standing in a gallery observing the painting, mere feet separating my body from the artwork, scents of others lingering in the air, and polite murmurs of conversations bubbling and fizzing within the space of the gallery.
I could see my friend, Peter, whom I haven’t seen in twenty-five years, standing beside me and the cool casual conversation we would have, I could hear it all, each of us looking at Hartley with a Cat.
Painted slightly from above, Hartley and the cat are colorful and specific.
They look directly at the viewer and comprise a double portrait in which each subject enjoys its own enigmatic quality. Under Alice Neel’s brush the cat is pulled into her son Hartley’s chest and its head nestled firmly under his chin, its body loose with trust.
Their open dare of gazing at us reflects the liberation Neel was known for; her work, from her remarkable inclusion of the frame within the picture to her framing her subjects with her thumbs and index finger while she painted, was as liberated as her subjects, and they fed on one another.
Among twentieth century artists, Alice Neel stands out as one of the most exemplary. While her contemporaries were blasting the world with abstract modernism, she pursued her own brand of realism.
A facet of her approach to painting is her choice of how she places her subjects within the frame. They feel as if they could slide right out of the work and bump right into to you. I can feel Hartley’s shoe in the painting touch my foot and the cat stick am orchestrated claw in my chest.
Her confident paintings consist of few details.
There’s Hartley’s striped shirt, pants, his shoe, and the implication of a chair’s arm. His eyes and the cat’s eyes, the striped-like wavy fur, the limp, loved feline body. Hartley’s competent arms supporting the animal. All without pretext or goo.
Harley with a Cat is anti-sentimental and intimate all the same, and the painting defines its sense of place, as well as one of the greatest portrait painters of the 20th century’s sense of place. It’s one hundred per cent Alice Neel, it has to be and is unlike any other, it is her world.
Neel’s body of work is of the domestic habitat, family, and dogs and cats.
She gives us the truth of the experience.
At the time of this painting Alice Neel was sixty-nine . Harley was 27 or 28. The cat’s name is unknown. It would be only a handful of years before she, who was one of the first feminists, who came from a lower income background and constantly struggled, was acknowledged as a painter of significance.
In her paintings there lies a visceral feeling of home, of paint beneath the fingernails, of food in the kitchen waiting to be eaten. It was a way of life. How Neel lived was not a life without pain, and her home was a place where struggles lived as much as art.
She studied at Philadelphia School of Design for Women, where Robert Henri had taught. I think of his book, The Art Spirit, and whenever I flip through it every sentence makes me think of Alice Neel. He wrote, “There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual- become clairvoyant. We reach then into reality. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom. It is in the nature of all people to have these experiences; but in our time and under the conditions of our lives, it is only a rare few who are able to continue in the experience and find expression for it.”
Alice Neel found her wisdom through her expression. She had to fight for it, and she kept working and finding in her anti-sentimental and powerfully unique way of painting. She’s one of the great artists because she chose not to hide behind anyone or bend her rules to subscribed notions.
We are drawn to Hartley with a Cat.
It is like her other paintings. They are so fluid you want to lie down at the foot of them, in them. You just want to look and look and look at it. They feel so familiar. I feel so familiar when I look at them, and I want to touch the painting but I know better. I hold out a finger to the computer screen anyhow. Letting it hover there is enough. I want to do with words what Neel does with paint.
At the end of my gazing and studying I feel as if I have spent time in the same space with Hartley and the cat. After looking away, closing the screen and going about my business I want to go back there.
I want to learn more from this painting. I want to feel more.
I want to go inside it.