Portrait of Mildred Myers Oldden
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jcappetta's picture


There’s a critical essay on Neel titled “Alice Neel: A Marxist Girl on Capitalism.” Which is like the academic equivalent of MIA’s video for “Bad Girls.”

And it fits too, Neel spent a number of years under FBI surveillance and also got Andy Warhol to strip for her, the 20th century bad girl.

Mildred Myers Oldden is the kind of woman who would have been first pick for any housing co-op in San Francisco: a lady boss who worked at a democratic collective publishing house that printed communist party writings and William Faulkner while telling the government that they were really just a farm. And look at those shoulder pads worn decades before they adorned finance bros, that cigarette holder like Cruella De Ville, millennial blush under a suit of power stripes–this woman is straight-up gunning for the end of Capitalism.

Despite all the revolutionary common ground between Neel and Oldden, the sitting was probably pretty awkward. Neel often made her subjects sit for entire afternoons and is quoted as saying “art is not as stupid as human conversation.”

It seems like they would have just sat in silence but probably Neel spent the entire sitting violently interrogating Oldden, trying to understand her personality. Sort of like when the dentist tries to make small talk while their hands are in your mouth. Neel also made sharp cat noises if her subject started to fall asleep. It all sounds very stressful and no fun and after all of that pretty much all Oldden got was a cartoon of herself looking successful but very, very alone.

But you know what’s even less fun? Just five years after this portrait, Neel was unsuccessful and alone, shoplifting in Harlem to feed her blind son and his half-brother. Shoot, even McCarthy would have been a Communist in a situation like that.



  1. Adams, Katherine H. and Michael L. Keen. Women, Art, and the New Deal. McFarland & Co.: Jefferson, 2016. Accessed Aug 8, 2017. .com/books?id=vWpECwAAQBAJ&pg=PA56&lpg=PA56&dq=mildred myers oldden&source=bl&ots=tU3L7daLMq&sig=_UIayzxXWY
  2. Farago, Jason, February 23, 2017. “Alice Neel’s Love of Harlem and the Neighbors She Painted There.” New York Times: Feb. 24, 2017. Accessed Aug 8, 2017.
  3. The Gallery. March 16, 2010. “Alice Neel’s Aphorisms.” The Gallery: The San Diego Museum of Art’s Blog for The Gallery. Accessed Aug 8, 2017.
  4. Henning, Rebecca. June 19, 2015. “Lynd Ward and the Equinox Cooperative Press.” The Consecrated Eminence, 2017. Accessed Aug 8, 2017. https://consecratedemin
  5. Hughes, Kathryn. October 12, 2014. “Dark Star: the paintings of Alice Neel.” The Telegraph: October 12, 2014. Accessed Aug 8, 2017. /culture/11144307/Dark-star-the-paintings-of-Alice-Neel.html
  6. Messud, Clare. October 5, 2016. “The Soul of Alice Neel.” New York Review of Books. Accessed Aug 8, 2017.
mbaa's picture


I will wait my whole life to seem as badass as Mildred Myers Oldden in her portrait by Alice Neel .

When Oldden posed for Alice Neel, the painter was only 37 years old. Neel had been abandoned by her Cuban husband, separated from her daughter, spent a year at a mental asylum, and had a lover who burned 300 of her paintings. The 1930s weren’t exactly kind to Alice Neel. In 1937, Neel was in between neighborhoods, with one foot in Greenwich Village and the other in Spanish Harlem. In 1937, when Oldden posed for Alice Neel, they were creating an image of a feminist heroine.

Mildred Myers Oldden was a young woman from La Jolla, California. At the time, La Jolla hadn’t yet embraced the surfing culture for which it is now known. Oldden moved to New York and was working with a super cool anti-establishment and left-leaning experimental press outfit. She appears to be a strong, confident, boss woman, who gets sh*t done.

Neel and Oldden may have been friends, of that we're not sure. But they certainly would have connected during the portrait painting process. Alice would always talk to her sitters. She was big on psychology and believed that her process allowed her to harness the soul of the sitter. Neel once said, “If I hadn’t been an artist, I could have been a psychiatrist.” Considering the vulnerability portrayed by the subjects in Neel's work, we agree.

Alice saw in Mildred a fiercesexy woman, and a force to be reckoned with. She was a young working professional who wasn’t watching from the sidelines. She was running the show, or at least she wanted to. Her confidence isn’t false, but energetic and active. Considering Neel’s political inclinations, Mildred emulated several qualities of the modern woman Neel admired. Neel believed that Communism would allow women to be like Mildred Myers Oldden.

Alice never joined the Communist party but she did hang out with a lot of them. A few of her lovers were fighters for the cause. She hung out with these guys a lot. In fact, the press outfit that Mildred worked for, the Equinox Cooperative Press, was a hub for communist thinkers and artists alike. They did fantastic work, publishing 16 books in 5 years. That’s rather prolific. The Press was founded by artist Lyn Ward, his wife, journalist May Mcneer, and Henry Hart. Mildred unfortunately saw Equinox shut down. Another bastion of the communist cause bites the dust.



  1. Adams, Katherine H., and Michael L. Keene. Women, Art and the New Deal. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company,, Publishers, 2016.
  2. "Alice Neel Paintings, Bio, Ideas." The Art Story. Accessed July 31, 2019.
  3. "Alice Neel Paintings, Bio, Ideas." The Art Story. Accessed July 31, 2019.
  4. Parkes, Olivia. "The Artist Who Painted the Politically Invisible and the Politically Active." Vice. February 24, 2017. Accessed July 31, 2019.
  5. Farago, Jason. "Alice Neel's Love of Harlem and the Neighbors She Painted There." The New York Times. February 23, 2017. Accessed July 31, 2019.