More about Untitled (Sad Clown)

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Alice Neel gained art world acclaim for her striking approach to portraiture.

She primarily painted friends and colleagues, but was occasionally known to throw in a self portrait or two, begging the question, is this sad clown a figment of her imagination or solemn fellow that found his way into Neel’s life? Let's just clear the air and start by saying what we are all thinking: clowns are scary AF. While I always assumed that bastard Stephen King was responsible for the degradation of what should have been a fun loving profession, turns out clowns have been catching flack for thousands of years. Clowns date back as far as ancient Egypt when they dressed up Pygmies’ to entertain the pharaohs, because you know, tact was clearly not their strong suit. While we all know these mischievous makeup-clad fellows are often up to no good, I think Neel is touching on the perhaps less talked about aspect of what it means to be a clown: that joyous exterior existing to cover up the pain beneath.

Neel, no stranger to pain herself, may have been drawing on her inner demons when channeling her creative juices to pop out this painting. From a young age, Neel’s life was met with social stigmas and limitations. As her own mother once said, "I don't know what you expect to do in the world, you're only a girl.” “Become a pioneer for female artists” would have been the correct response, but perhaps she lacked the clairvoyance necessary for that insight. She married young and soon gave birth to a daughter who ended up dying in infancy. Much of her youth involved living on welfare and shoplifting. A few years later she suffered a mental breakdown and ended up hospitalized. Some time after getting out she attempted suicide, ultimately landing her in the hospital yet again. I could keep going but I am pretty sure you catch my drift. I think it is safe to say that Neel understood what it was like to live a life with the facade of being the cool, collected bohemian that she is often painted as, yet crippled by a brooding history of pain and sadness. As they always say, artists paint what they know. Could this be a quasi self-portrait or just another sad clown? You decide.