Seated on an armless mustard-green chair, Margaret Evans is nude and pregnant. The evidence of pregnancy’s toll appears throughout her body: in the blue vein that ripples along one breast, her mottled legs, her flushed face. She looks out at us, confident and calm, but also carries some tension, as her arms seem to grip the seat, perhaps to hold herself upright in the pose.

Painted late in Alice Neel’s career, when the artist was 78, Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978) provokes a feeling of wonder and awe. How could someone have captured another person’s essence, this almost soulful likeness, in paint? There seem to be two subjects: the sitter herself and the physical fact of her pregnancy, which is depicted without a value judgment, as neither a life-affirming force nor a societal trap. We are simply in the presence of a woman who is present in her body, holding space with her like some kind of communion.

Such is the force of an Alice Neel painting; standing before one can be a profound experience. The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl once wrote that her art, “beyond being something to look at, is something that happens to you.” Neel was an artist whose life spanned the majority of the 20th century. Despite the ebb and flow of movements and trends during that time, she remained a figurative painter, making mostly (but not entirely) portraits—a word she rejected for its bourgeois connotations. She preferred the phrase “pictures of people” and called herself an “anarchic humanist.” As she explained in a 1950 interview: “For me, people come first. I think I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.”

A recent retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, “Alice Neel: People Come First,” centered this humanism as the driving philosophy of Neel’s work. (The exhibition is also traveling to the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.) It positioned her as a kind of model for the socially engaged artist—similar to how Phoebe Hoban, in the new introduction to her recently reissued biography, Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, describes her subject as “arguably America’s first feminist, multiculturally conscious artist.” Such characterizations aren’t wrong, but they also neuter our understanding of Neel and her work while eliding her whiteness. They oversimplify a far more complex story.

Behind the general terms lie a host of specific political affiliations. Neel was a lifelong member of the Communist Party, an ally to Black and brown artists, and a cause célèbre of the feminist art movement. Yet in reading Hoban’s biography, one gets the sense that, like so many artists, Neel wasn’t great at practicing solidarity, because she was consumed by her own vision. The clearest expression of her beliefs lay in her art: her commitment to painting people, from which she never wavered. You can see it in her haunting scenes of New York City during the Great Depression; her equally rigorous portraits of leftist leaders, neighbors in Spanish Harlem, and art-world denizens; her unsentimental depictions of pregnant women and mothers, male nudes and gay couples. She was drawn, she said, to fellow survivors of the “rat race,” people who struggled and who generally didn’t appear as complex individuals—if they appeared at all—in Western art.

In order for people to come first in Neel’s work, her art had to come before people, often to others’ detriment. A large portion of Hoban’s biography details dramatic episodes and conflagrations, conjuring a woman who caused—as well as bore—a lot of pain. She was known to take advantage of people and to goad and provoke those closest to her. Her family life was rife with abuse and abandonment, of which she was the victim, aggressor, and abettor. While watching Alice Neel, the 2007 documentary by her grandson Andrew Neel that surveys the familial fallout of her choices, I found myself thinking about Picasso, another brilliant painter whose legacy is similarly enmeshed in his interpersonal sins. The point in either case isn’t to judge an individual’s actions or to seek an impossible separation of the artist from the art. It is instead to think about the costs of greatness and how, in retrospect, we can move past the one-dimensional narratives of genius. If anything, part of what makes Neel’s art so compelling is how her life, work, and beliefs existed in constant tension.

Alice Neel was born on January 28, 1900, in Merion Square, Penn., to parents whom Hoban describes as “economically lower-middle-class.” She grew up in nearby Colwyn, a stifling town where she felt out of place, both geographically and emotionally. “Other people loomed too large. Everybody could knock me off base,” Neel recalled. “I’d make such an effort to be what they wanted, a pretty little girl, that I wouldn’t be myself at all.” From an early age, art became her way of dealing with that alienation, a space in which she could express an inner life that was at odds with her environment.

Margaret Evans Pregnant, 1978. (Courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art / The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Still, she didn’t pursue art in earnest until she was 21, when she entered the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. As Hoban notes, her academic choice was significant: The school’s approach reflected the legacy of one of its most famous teachers, Robert Henri. A cofounder of the movement known as the Ashcan School, Henri was a proponent of realism who believed that art should seek to represent truth rather than beauty.

Neel took the call to realism to heart: She went out into the streets of Philadelphia to paint and attended a local sketch club where the models were ordinary people. (She was also part of the first generation of female art students allowed to study live male nudes.) The path of realism reflected how Neel understood her place in the world. “I had a conscience about going to art school,” she said. “Because when I’d go into the school, the scrub-women would be coming back from scrubbing office floors all night. It killed me that these old gray-headed women had to scrub floors, and I was going in there to draw Greek statues.”

In 1924, while away at summer school in the nearby countryside, Neel met the first in a line of men with whom she would have tumultuous relationships as well as children: the painter Carlos Enríquez, who came from a wealthy, landed Cuban family. Enríquez and Neel fell in love and quickly wed, then moved to Havana, where their lives were a study in class contrast. The couple stayed in the family mansion but took frequent trips to impoverished neighborhoods to paint people they met on the street. They became part of the burgeoning art scene and began showing their work, including in an exhibition of Cuban avant-garde art, where it garnered critical attention.

One of Neel’s contributions was a 1926 rendering of a mother and child that was also on view at the Met. The piece, which offers a glimpse of her young, brushy style, represents an early interest in a subject that was about to consume her. Her first daughter with Enríquez, Santillana del Mar, was born at the end of 1926. Within six months, Neel had left Havana for Colwyn, taking Santillana with her. Though she never explained her reasons, it was a sign of the struggle between making art and mothering that she would face and depict for the rest of her life, including in a series of intimate, diaristic watercolors from around this time. One titled The Family (1927) shows a smiling Enríquez lying down with Santillana, who seems to almost dangle off the side of the bed. A topless Neel holds her daughter in place while bending sharply at the waist, as if from exhaustion.

Enríquez soon rejoined Neel, and they moved to New York, where they painted in a city swirling with modernist ideas and energy. But Enríquez’s family sent him little money, and they struggled to find sources of income. Then, suddenly, Santillana died of diphtheria before her first birthday. Neel was devastated.

Their second daughter, Isabella Lillian, nicknamed Isabetta, was born in 1928, but stability remained elusive. As the stock market crashed, the couple’s relationship deteriorated. In 1930, Enríquez took Isabetta to Havana, left her with his family, and went to Paris. Neel had thought they would travel together, but instead her husband abandoned her. At the same time, she abandoned Isabetta. “You see, I had always had this awful dichotomy,” Neel later said. “I loved Isabetta, of course I did. But I wanted to paint.”

Neel faced an impossible choice that has haunted countless creative women: pursue her art or subsume it to the burdens of parenting. She chose her work, at great emotional cost. In August 1930, she suffered a nervous breakdown. She was hospitalized in Philadelphia and briefly released, only to attempt suicide at her parents’ house. Back in the hospital, Neel continued her attempts until a social worker gave her a sketch pad. “It was the drawing that helped me decide to get well,” she said later. She was transferred to a private sanitarium to recover. Her haunting 1931 drawing Suicidal Ward depicts a smiling male doctor in a room full of beds and delirious female patients. It recalls her 1928–29 painting Well Baby Clinic, which features a handful of almost angelic-looking medical staff tending to a ward of new mothers who appear largely possessed—an indication of how clearly Neel understood the patriarchal nature of such institutions.

As for Isabetta, she was raised by Enríquez’s sisters and remained estranged from her mother; she had kids of her own but never told them about Neel’s existence. In 1982, after three previous attempts, Isabetta died by suicide. As Hoban writes, her “nonrelationship” with her mother “would significantly shape her life.” From Neel’s particular pains, Isabetta inherited her own.

If Neel’s 20s were shaped by her struggle to navigate her situation as a working-class woman and artist, in her 30s she found a politics that helped her make sense of that identity. After recovering, she returned to New York City, where she moved to Greenwich Village with her new partner, a communist sailor named Kenneth Doolittle. She was surrounded by fellow artists, intellectuals, and writers and began showing her work in earnest, receiving her first mention in an American publication in 1933: A critic in The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote of her art, “There is nothing ‘pretty’ about these pictures, but they have substance and honesty.”

Neel’s work was wide-ranging during this period, as she experimented and honed her voice. Sometimes she painted somber cityscapes, a style that was well represented in the work she did during the New Deal years, beginning with the Public Works of Art Project in 1933. By September 1935, the PWAP had become the Works Progress Administration, which paid Neel $103.40 a month to submit a painting every six weeks. Creating her own version of the then-prevalent social realist style, she depicted the economic and emotional realities of the city in scenes of May Day parades and longshoremen congregating after work, using a dark palette and an unromantic gaze. She also dabbled in more surreal and playful territory. Synthesis of New York–Great Depression (1933) features skeletons walking the streets and mannequins flying overhead like angels; a radical 1933 nude portrait of the writer Joe Gould portrays him with three sets of genitalia.

The New Deal had a significant financial effect on Neel’s life, but it also gave her purpose and a feeling of solidarity with other artists. “For the first time, art, rather than being considered an intellectual luxury, was being classified as wage-earning work,” Hoban writes. “Artists of the time felt an uplifting sense of unity” that they channeled into unions and associations, some of which Neel joined. Given her immersion in this milieu and her longstanding interest in depicting working people, it is no surprise that she became a member of the Communist Party in 1935.

“The Marxists were the only ones who recognized her,” the novelist Phillip Bonosky, a longtime friend of Neel’s and a fellow party member, told Hoban. “She was not only an artist, but a woman, not only a woman but a lost woman; she was an unmarried woman and she had everything against her. But she found a home there. She found people who respected her.” The art historian Andrew Hemingway notes that many were drawn to the party because “it offered the most sustained critique available of class, racial and sexual inequality”; he adds that Neel may also have been attracted to communism’s seeming promise of a kind of personal freedom that she valued deeply.

She remained a party member for the rest of her life—and in 1981 became the first living American artist to have a retrospective in the Soviet Union—but it was the intellectual and collective spirit that attracted her more than the hands-on work of organizing. As Charles Keller, a onetime art editor at New Masses, told Hoban, “She showed her views through her work, which I think was more important in many respects than…distributing leaflets and organizing meetings.” Indeed, art became the expression of Neel’s commitment, her point of participation.

Recognizing this, the communists supported her work for decades, long before the art world took an interest in her. That included the illustrations she did for publications like Masses & Mainstream as well as enthusiastic reviews by colleagues like Mike Gold, whose 1950 Daily Worker piece on Neel gave the Met retrospective its title. Gold also organized one of Neel’s few solo shows of the 1950s, while Bonosky put together the later one in the USSR.

Meanwhile, some of the earliest portraits in her mature style—in which the paint seems activated by the process of bringing out people’s inner lives—feature party leaders and activists. But it wasn’t only, or even primarily, by depicting party leaders that Neel broadcast her views; it was through her portraits of ordinary people, like the ones she’d been making since the extracurricular outings of her school days. Such paintings increasingly became her focus starting in 1938, the year of her first solo show in Manhattan, when she also relocated to Spanish Harlem.

Neel’s relationship with Doolittle had been rocky, and at the end of 1934, in a fit of possibly drug-fueled rage, he slashed and burned hundreds of her artworks. She called the episode a personal “holocaust” and, in the wake of it, fled the Village.

Neel began dating the musician José Santiago Negron next and moved with him to El Barrio, a largely working-class, Puerto Rican neighborhood where she thought she’d find “more truth.” Although her words suggest naivete or condescension, her portraits of her neighbors are compassionate and rigorous. The Spanish Harlem portraits—including her multiple depictions of a local boy named Georgie Arce, whose variable looks and moods suggest a closeness between him and Neel—are perhaps the purest articulations of her communist and humanist beliefs. They manifest the dignity of her working-class subjects without becoming propaganda. They’re also significant historically, given that portraits have often represented the wealthy and powerful, who could afford to commission likenesses of themselves. When working people of color do appear in the Western canon, they’re chronically depicted as archetypes, canvases for a white artist’s projections. By contrast, as curator Kelly Baum noted in the Met catalog, Neel’s paintings “grant visibility to subjects who remained largely absent from the precinct of fine art, breaking the monopoly that white, upper-class men had long enjoyed on the category of human being.”

Although Neel had moved away from the creative heart of New York City, her career continued to progress until the mid-1940s, when abstraction, particularly Abstract Expressionism, became the vogue. The change was total; figuration was out. “She was very bitter about being marginalized like that, being wiped off the map, simply because she insisted on being a realist,” Bonosky said.

Her personal life, too, remained tumultuous. In 1939, Neel gave birth to a son, Richard, but Negron left her shortly thereafter. She then began a relationship with Sam Brody, a leftist photographer who helped found the Film and Photo League. They had their own son, Hartley, in 1941. Brody believed in Neel’s work and helped her financially; emotionally, however, they were, as Neel put it, “homicidal meets suicidal.” By all accounts, she did plenty of instigating, but Brody had a fierce temper. He sometimes abused Neel, but his primary target was Richard. “She tolerated this person that she knew was abusing me,” Richard said in the 2007 documentary, speaking publicly about the situation for the first time. “I don’t hold that against her, but the facts are the facts. The world isn’t just you, the world is you and your relationship with the other people.”

In the documentary, Hartley explains to the filmmaker, Andrew Neel—who is also Hartley’s son—that Brody’s abuse was the reason he ultimately rejected his father, as well as why Andrew never knew his grandfather. The moment evokes parallels with Isabetta’s family: You can feel Neel’s descendants trying to reconcile her brilliance with their lingering hurt.

The 1950s were a low point for Neel. “Why can’t I get a gallery?” she asked Bonosky. “Here I am, a genius—and I need to show my canvases. I’m inundated with them.” Her apartment overflowed with paintings she couldn’t exhibit or sell: portraits of neighbors; work echoing back to her WPA days, like the occasional protest scene; and even quiet still lifes and semi-abstract cityscapes. Anyone who visited would be similarly inundated, as Neel subjected them to a “show-and-tell” of her work and the stories behind it. One visitor called the experience “a type of theater which was unparalleled.” Bonosky had the idea to turn these impromptu talks into slide lectures, starting with one in 1953 at the Communist Party’s Jefferson School. A short piece in the Daily Worker reported on “an enthralled audience…frequently breaking into applause at particularly striking scenes.” By the time Neel’s career took off in the 1960s, she was ready to take her show on the road. The talks and lectures she gave burnished her reputation for being funny, frank, and foul-mouthed. They also helped make her famous.

The countercultural revolution opened up a whole new space for Neel. The unofficial art-world ban on figuration was dropped, and a new kind of social and political consciousness came into fashion. In the early ’60s, Neel signed with a gallery, received renewed press attention, and started showing again, soon at a rapid pace. (An exhibition opening next month at David Zwirner gallery will focus on work from the earlier, pre-fame part of her career.) Hoban offers the remarkable statistic that while Neel had only six solo shows between 1927 and 1964, she had more than 60 in the last two decades of her life. This was partly because she began painting portraits of art-world insiders: curators like the Metropolitan Museum’s Henry Geldzahler, poets like Frank O’Hara (who was also a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), and artists like Robert Smithson.

Yet she never softened her exacting gaze. Neel’s portraits are so striking because her renderings of people’s bodies seem to also show something of their souls. That quality intensified as she lightened her palette and began outlining her subjects in blue rather than black, which served to highlight and almost buoy them. Her backgrounds contained more abstract passages of paint, and in some cases she stopped filling in whole sections. Her remarkable 1972 portrait of Andy Warhol shows him topless with closed eyes, wearing a medical corset below the gunshot scars crisscrossing his chest. He sits on a couch that’s simply a tan outline, with patches of blue hovering around his head and torso. Neel uses a bare composition to cut through the cloud of Warhol’s celebrity and present him as a mere mortal.

The ’60s were also when Neel began painting pregnant nudes, an exceedingly rare subject in Western art history. These marvelous and uncomfortable portraits, of women who bear not just their own pregnancies but the social realities that come with them, suggest a dynamic of love and pain, as do Neel’s many renderings of mothers and children from this time. In Nancy and the Twins (1971), Neel’s daughter-in-law gives a swelling breast to one of her babies; the blue veins in it mimic the outline of Nancy’s eyes, which stare at the viewer with exhaustion. These paintings are startlingly honest about the personal and political ramifications of childbearing, which Neel herself confronted time and again.

It’s no wonder that second-wave feminists anointed her a forebear whose recognition was long overdue. Neel had spent decades observing society from her point of view as a woman. What the movement saw as feminist, however, she saw as her communist devotion to the human being—it was politics by another name. This helps explain why she never formally identified as a feminist and why her relationship to the movement was vexed. She didn’t see herself in solidarity with other women—especially the white, middle-class drivers of the second wave—so much as with working-class people the world over.

But just as Marxism had given Neel a framework for understanding her own life, feminism created a framework by which the rest of the world could make sense of her. From the paintings she’d made to the ways she’d been marginalized, feminist artists and art historians looked to Neel as a trailblazer. They supported her as the communists had long done. They even petitioned the Whitney Museum of American Art to give her an exhibition, as did Neel’s sons. In 1974, those efforts paid off with her first retrospective. At 74 years old, she was finally vindicated. “I had always felt…that I didn’t have a right to paint because I had two sons and I had so many things I should be doing,” Neel said. “After the show I didn’t feel that way anymore.”

Neel would live for another decade, during which time her career would continue its rise. Posthumously, her success has been even greater. “Neel’s legacy has not only survived her but continued to grow exponentially,” Hoban writes. When I was coming up as a young feminist art critic, Neel seemed larger than life: a bold and tragic figure, a woman ahead of her time who suffered because of it. While there is truth to that narrative, the more I scrutinized it, the more I came to understand that the reality was—as it always is—more tangled. Neel’s life abounded with contradictions: a devoted mother who abandoned a child, a lifelong communist and loner, a feminist who didn’t define herself as such. She was an artist who committed herself to humanity, yet whose depictions of people are so severely honest, they have the power to shock.

Hoban grapples with these incongruities, while the Met retrospective largely excluded them. This may have been necessary—an exhibition isn’t a biography—but missing the details of Neel’s life means missing the impact of some of her art. If you don’t know the story of her relationship with Isabetta, you won’t get the full weight of an infamous nude portrait she made of her daughter when the girl was 6.

One place where the contradictions did peek through was in a striking portrait called Richard in the Era of the Corporation (1978–79). It shows Neel’s eldest son wearing a suit and tie, with a shiny helmet of hair. He grips the armchair he’s sitting in, perhaps a bit wary of his mother, who, according to the wall text at the exhibition, thought the painting represented a time when “the corporation enslaved all these bright young men” like her son. In fact, several shots in the documentary Alice Neel show Richard sitting below the portrait. At one point he crosses his legs as he does in the artwork and discusses his staunch support for Richard Nixon. “There are very few people that are as right-wing as I am,” he says. “And there were very few people that were as left-wing as I was when I was a kid.”

How do we define someone’s legacy? Is it through their work or their family, their politics or their personal life? In a way, I think none of those things mattered to Neel as much as making art. Painting was the closest she got to freedom, and she pursued it no matter the cost.