Capturing an informal sitting

Alice Neel’s portrait seizes a moment in time

Alice Neel’s portrait of Kiki Djos (left) and Nancy Selvage, “Wellesley Girls,’’ was painted in 1967. Alice Neel’s portrait of Kiki Djos (left) and Nancy Selvage, “Wellesley Girls,’’ was painted in 1967.
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / March 15, 2011

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WELLESLEY — “Wellesley Girls’’ hangs, fittingly, in Wellesley College’s Davis Museum and Cultural Center. Intensely awkward yet almost casually virtuosic, it’s one of those rare portraits that creates a real psychological itch, one that can be satisfied only by more looking.

It was painted in New York in 1967 by Alice Neel, the bohemian artist who pushed on through decades of art world neglect, as well as shattering tumult in her personal life (departed lovers, a baby’s death, mental breakdown, domestic strife — the works, really) to end up one of the most celebrated painters of her time. She died in 1984 at 84.

This picture shows, on the right, Nancy Selvage, who this year retired as director of the ceramics program at Harvard University, and her friend Kiki Djos (now Martin).

“My friend Kiki and I had gone to New York for the weekend and stayed with Alice,’’ Selvage wrote me when I got in touch to ask about the experience. “After we ran around to museums on Saturday, Alice decided to paint us late that night under some dreary fluorescent light.’’

Selvage was spending a lot of time with Neel then, because Neel’s son Hartley was her boyfriend. (Her Wellesley roommate would later marry Hartley. Ah, college!)

“Being painted by Alice was always a spontaneous experience,’’ Selvage remembers. “None of the sittings were commissioned or scheduled. All of a sudden she would zero in on a gesture or emotional state that she ‘needed’ to capture.’’

You can tell from the way, in “Wellesley Girls,’’ she lavishes attention on Selvage’s face and upright form that Neel felt strongly about her. It’s a sense that is underlined by Neel’s discreet, but unignorable, snubbing of Martin. It’s not that Martin’s presence is uninteresting. How can you not love her outfit — the worn, translucent knees of her stockings, the polka-dot pattern, inverted on one side, of her jacket? But her face has an unfinished, slipshod quality that is the antithesis of Selvage’s composed, focused features.

Note, in particular, the telling shadow hooking under the inside of Selvage’s glistening right eye; the eyes’ slight asymmetry; the lush green shadow between her eyebrows; and the dark hair lolling sensuously on her shoulders.

She’s a girl vexed by, and not yet ready for, her own beauty.

Neel plays up the contrast between the squat, mannish pose of Martin (shades of Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein) and the sinuous, elongated shape of Selvage. The crown of Selvage’s head almost touches the upper edge of the painting; her smartly shoed foot kisses the canvas’s bottom edge.

According to Selvage, who stayed in touch with Neel until the painter’s death, Neel had no “room of her own’’: She worked at the easel in the living room, or wherever else it pleased her to paint. The girls sat for a relatively short time on Saturday night, and then again on Sunday morning — the living room now in sunlight — before they drove back to Boston.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at


At: Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley. 781-283-2051,