The Last Illness

Neel, Alice

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Annotated by:
Winkler, Mary
  • Date of entry: Mar-03-1997
  • Last revised: Feb-18-2012


This portrait of the artist's mother was done a few months before her death in 1954. An elderly woman with white, feathery, unkempt hair sits facing the viewer, wearing a plaid wool bath robe. Although the chair is set on a slight diagonal with the picture plane, the impression is one of frontality: the subject faces (confronts) the viewer with a combination of fortitude and vulnerability.

Neel has suggested spiritual and emotional conflict by dividing the face and accentuating the frightened eyes behind large spectacles. The strong geometrical pattern of the bathrobe gives a sense of stability to the form, while simultaneously setting up a contrast with the delicate hands and aged face of the sick woman.


Alice Neel believed that a good portrait reveals not only the character of the subject, but something of his or her society as well. Thus, this portrait is about her mother, but also about her mother as a representative of her time and social milieu. Neel remembered her mother, a descendent of a Declaration of Independence signatory, as strong and uncompromising. Something of the tension between her "starch" and her vulnerability is present in the portrait.


Dated 1953. The Neel estate has a comprehensive web site: with detailed biographical notes and a gallery of many paintings.

Primary Source

Alice Neel: The Woman and Her Work (Georgia Museum of Art, The University of Georgia: Athens, Ga., 1975)