Investigation of Poverty, Russell Sage Foundation

Neel, Alice

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice
  • Date of entry: Feb-23-2012


Painted while Neel was enrolled in the Works Progress Administration--a New Deal program to help the unemployed-- the work depicts a scene with which the artist was probably familiar, being herself impoverished at the time. The setting is a room at The Russell Sage Foundation, established by Margaret Olivia Sage in 1907 for "'the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States.' In its early years the Foundation undertook major projects in low-income housing, urban planning, social work, and labor reform" (quote from .

At the painting's rear center sits an elderly (gray haired) woman facing sideways, dressed all in black, head buried in her hands. From her clothing and affect, she is probably a widow. She is seated in front of a small table around which, in a semicircle, sit her interrogators - nine men and two women. They all face her. One of the women seems to be interviewing her while the other people listen with varying expressions on their faces, ranging from thoughtful to impassive. The men are all wearing suits and ties except for one (possibly two), with clerical collar. The women, including the elderly lady under investigation, all wear hats. All are white, with the possible exception of a clergyman, who may be a light skinned black. To the right foreground of the painting sit two men, facing sideways, who appear to be waiting to be questioned. The man closest to the viewer is elderly, with a white mustache, apparently Latino since his skin color is light brown; he is wearing a suit and tie and holds two bananas in his hand. The expression on his face is one of worry and fatigue. To the left foreground, with his back to the viewer, a man sits leaning forward, apparently one of the questioners.


The despair of the central figure is striking, even though we cannot see her face. The people investigating her status seem to be well-meaning but the woman is clearly overwhelmed by the situation that has brought her there and by the process that determines whether she qualifies for help. Neel captures all the elements that came into play for individuals during the economic depression of the 1930s: poverty, shame, despair, helplessness. There are power relations at play here also - a lone woman being questioned mostly by men, several of whom look "corporate" or academic, and quite different from the two men waiting to be interviewed.


Dated 1933. The Neel estate has a comprehensive website: with detailed biographical notes and a gallery of many paintings.

Primary Source

Alice Neel. Ann Tremkin, ed. (New York: Harry N Abrams & Philadelphia Museum of Art) 2000, p.97