Sir, I write in response to Rachel Spence’s review (“The bearable lightness of being”, Life & Arts, August 20) of the current Edinburgh retrospective of works of the American figurative painter Alice Neel. It presents an Alice at great distance from the warm, heroic innovator I knew whose bohemian lifestyle and acquaintance she captured in her art.

Alice’s career as painter was marked by the Great Depression and by her membership of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. This experience she shared with many and she was no worse for it than most.

The review gives the impression that Alice was little known before the late 1960s. Certainly she suffered, but not in obscurity. She was one of a vital circle that included painters Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof, his wife, the Soyer brothers, Raphael, Isaac and Moses, and Tom Brandon, the film distributor. In 1959, she had a role in Pull My Daisy, the seminal film of the Beat Generation. Her friendship with Allen Ginsberg, whom she portrayed, had commenced earlier.

She was already widely known. By 1962, Alice was represented by and showing at New York’s prestigious Graham Gallery.

Just as early poverty and commercial neglect was shared, so too was her later fame and access to figures of importance. In the years following the second world war, the careers of many of those closest to her took off much as Alice’s did, especially from the 1960s. But her life and work is unique in its evolution.

Allen Tobias

Brooklyn, NY, US

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