A Common Conviction; A Century Apart
by Marguerite Serkin
It may be difficult to consider parallelism between two artists as separated by time and tradition as Erastus Salisbury Field and Alice Neel. Yet parallelism is exactly the tenet of a groundbreaking exhibition opening July 5 at the Bennington Museum, “Alice Neel/Erastus Salis- bury Field: Painting the People.”Erastus Salisbury Field was born in 1805 in Massachusetts, where he lived for most of his life. Like Alice Neel, Field found his way to Greenwich Village, where he developed his skills in portraiture. Field made his early living as a limner, but portraiture occupied the vast majority of his early and middle years.
Following the death of his wife, Field returned to Massachusetts where his bucolic country life did not diminish his political fervor and passion for social justice. He was an outspoken abolitionist. “Historical Monument of the American Republic,” begun in 1867 and completed in 1888, was considered his magnum opus, depicting allegorical structures representing key events in American history. A photoengraving of this colossal work is included in the Bennington exhibition. Field’s shift from portraits to symbolism in landscape was due at least in part to the emergence of portrait photography, which began to supersede painting as the desirable choice for commissioned likenesses.
Alice Neel’s life was marked by tragedy and turbulence, both personally and within her social milieu. Keenly aware of the challenges faced by women in the 20th century, Neel (who died in 1984) chose to portray her subjects unflinchingly, exposing hard angles and lines, coupled with the warmth of human frailty and vulnerability. Her 1975 painting, “Ginny and Elizabeth,” shows a mother holding her child in the simplest of settings. The mother’s expression betrays both hopefulness and deep fatigue, while the child appears ill fit to be held, as though the relationship between the two is awkward, strained. Women who somehow do not fit their given roles, or are at odds with their own bodies, are recurring subjects of Neel’s work. “Like Chekhov, I am a collector of souls,” Neel said. “If I hadn’t been an artist, I could have been a psychiatrist.”