A nurse clothed in white and holding a baby stands in the center of a hospital ward. Surrounding her sit adults colored brown and grey. Naked babies lie mostly unattended on white beds. Most of the newborns share the same posture--their arms are splayed and their legs are raised towards the ceiling. A handful of adults in the room attend to the children. Their blurred faces and pallid coloring assign them a baleful monstrousness.


Well Baby Clinic, painted from memory two weeks after the birth of Neel's second child--her first daughter, Santillana, had perished--confronts the viewer with Neel's "very dubious" attitude towards childbirth. The focus of the composition, both visually and thematically, is the white-clad nurse who cradles a babe in the center of the painting. In contrast to the dingy off-white clinic walls, the nurse is depicted as clean, or in Neel's own words, "so neat."

Surrounding this emblem of refined medicine and clean science is what Neel refers to as "sloppy humanity there, all ragged at the edges." Perhaps to illustrate the sentiment exactly, the woman in the foreground holds a naked baby--"that little bit of hamburger"--while her dress, ragged at its edges, falls off her shoulder to reveal her naked, functional breast. Her face is horrible and brutish, composed of little more than an eye slot and a mouth of teeth. [Quotations are from Patricia Hills, ed.--see Alternate Source.]

In contrast, the doctor with whom she converses is clad in medical white, holds a beaker, and boasts a face both well defined and bespectacled. The difference between these two figures embodies the ambivalent spirit of the painting; the refinement and "purity" of medical science is juxtaposed against the animalistic noise of humanity.

Alice Neel, a depression era painter, explored the misery and beauty of humanity through her pictures. She lived for a time in Spanish Harlem, worked as part of the Works Progress Administration, and earned recognition late in life, eventually finding shows at the Whitney and other American museums.


Painted in the winter of 1928-29. The Neel estate has a comprehensive website: with detailed biographical notes and a gallery of many paintings.

Primary Source

Estate of Alice Neel