John I. H. Bauer, head of the Brooklyn Museum‘s Department of painting and sculpture from 1936 to 1952, here appears seated in an interior space, perhaps his office. His body, cropped at the head and ankle, fills the frame. Painted in 1974, Alice Neel captured idiosyncrasies such as his slightly rumpled suit, wrinkled face, and veiny hands. One of her guiding principles as a portraitist was, in her words, that “every person is a new universe unique with its own laws.“
Over the course of a career that stretched from the 1920s to the 1980s, Alice Neel painted portraits of hundreds of friends, family members, lovers, artists art historians, writers, and political activists, believing that “people are the greatest and profoundest key to an era.” Seeking to express psychology above absolute physical likeness, she often used exaggerated colors and expressive brushstrokes and eliminated extraneous details in order to capture the inner lives of her subjects.
Neel was a longtime supporter of leftist causes. In the painting of Pat Whalen (1935), she depicts the Communist activist and union organizer for the longshoremen of Baltimore as a paragon of social justice. Whalen’s creased face and expression — along with a copy of the Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the Communist Party USA, resting beneath his large, clenched — suggest both a noble archetype of the blue-collar worker and an all-consuming commitment to the working man’s cause.