Alice Neel painted this evocative picture when her soon left home to marry.


At the time it was painted in 1970, “Loneliness” was the closest Neel had come to a self-portrait. Patricia Hills writes that “Loneliness” “gave concrete substance and image to the desolation that [Neel] felt when [her son] Hartley left home to marry Ginny.” The painting expresses this desolation in part by the absence of a human subject, but also visually through the separation of the composition’s various geometric shapes from one another.

Discounting the chair, which because of its coloring and angle takes on a type of animation, the painting is composed of isolated rectangular plains–the walls, the windows in the foreground and background, the shade, the molding. These distinct shapes abut one another without actually touching, creating the effect of separation, disconnection, and, most aptly, “Loneliness.” Neel acknowledged that this effect was the reason she liked the composition: “I really like the divisions in the painting. In its formal aspects, it approaches abstraction.”

For deeper insight into Neel’s self-image, it is beneficial to examine her painting, Self-Portrait painted ten years later in 1980 (see this database). This bona fide self-depiction lends greater understanding to the lonesome chair in “Loneliness,” for “Self-portrait” features Neel sitting in a similar armchair, albeit of a different color, in the same three-quarter view. In my annotation of that painting I wrote that Neel “responds to the traditional idealized female nude with her own form–one that celebrates the soul’s beauty rather than the beauty of surfaces.” This observation, that Neel celebrates the soul of a thing rather than its superficial characteristics, dovetails with “Loneliness,” a self-portrait of sorts that, despite its lack of a human subject, still manages to convey Neel’s own emptiness.