My Favourite Painting: Polly Devlin

The writer chooses 'The De Vegh Twins', a simple but haunting work by an American artist for whom fame came late: Alice Neel.

Polly Devlin on The De Vegh Twins

‘Something happens when you look at a painting by the heroic American artist Alice Neel, now recognised as one of the great portrait painters of the 20th century, but neglected for years by the predominantly male New York artistic establishment when abstract painting was in the ascendant.

What happens is shock, but satisfaction, familiarity, yet strangeness, affection and cruelty, humour and morality, oddity and sanctity, tenderness and ruthlessness, but, above all, truth. She delivers, in her accurate representation of what she sees, an account of the human condition. She would not call it vision, but it is visionary. These two touching creatures, the spookily identical De Vegh twins, were her neighbours’ daughters. They are something else.’

Polly Devlin is a writer and broadcaster. Her new book, ‘Writing Home: Selected Essays’, is published on May 30 by Pimpernel

John McEwen comments on The De Vegh Twins

The American Alice Neel only achieved art-world celebrity in her seventies, but was long respected at its New York core. She was the pre-eminent portraitist of the city’s bohemia, of intellectuals and fellow artists, as well as other marginal subjects, such as old men, pregnant women, black children and babies: ‘The minute I sat in front of a canvas I was happy. Because it was a world, and I could do what I liked in it.’

That she painted portraits when Abstraction was the fashion, and did so without any concessions to charm or commerce, only earned respect for integrity. Her own bohemianism was borne out by her three children by different fathers.

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In the Depression, she joined the Communist party and had to shoplift to make ends meet. When acceptance came and feminists revered her, she disappointed them, telling an interviewer she much preferred men and that women ‘terrified’ her.

Neel was born in Philadelphia, the daughter of a railroad clerk. Her mother claimed to be a descendant of a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, so she was brought up with a sense of lost social status. Her mother was a depressive, her moods hard to read. ‘If I hadn’t been an artist, I could have been a psychiatrist,’ Neel said.

The multi-tasking Hungarian-born Geza de Vegh (1905–89), father of twins Suzanne and Antonia, was a friend of long standing. His Art Deco figurines are avidly collected today. He exhibited Neel at his Old Mill Association, New Jersey, and, in 1957, she gave him 50 portraits to repair that one of her lovers, an able seaman, had slashed in 1934.

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