Alice Neel (1900-1984), considered one of the great american portrait painters of the 20th century, lived and worked in East Harlem during a formative period in her career. Already an accomplished painter in the W.P.A, Neel moved from Greenwich Village to East harlem in 1938. That first year, she lived at 8 east 107th street with her lover, Jose Santiago Negron, a nightclub singer. After their birth of their son, Richard, in 1939, Neel and Negron separated bur she remained on 107th street . In 1942 Neel relocated to 21 East 108th street, her primary residence for the next twenty years.
Turning the large living room into a studio, Neel created numerous insightful portraits of her children, lovers, friends and neighbors in El Barrio. This body of work, known today as The Spanish Harlem Series, shows Neel devoting herself to rendering portraits that revealed something about her’s subjects emotional make up. Employing an expressionistic style and dramatic vivid pallete, , the Spanish Harlem contains groundbreaking images of racially diverse couples and families in East Harlem; Neel’s portrayals of mixed race people who appear comfortable together yet self-conscious about being observed are testimonies to the racial strife that Puerto Ricans and African Americans endured at that time, as well as the abundant love that kept friends and families together despite social disapproval.