Alice Neel’s Cityscape: A Simple View from a Window

by Michael Templeton


Alice Neel painted the 1934 Cityscape over the course of a week she spent at friend’s apartment after fleeing an abusive partner who destroyed 60 of her paintings in a jealous rage. She described the painting as a simple snow scene from the vantage of the apartment in which Holy Cross Church on 42nd Street was immediately visible in the foreground. The painting is taken up with the rooftops of buildings. The spire of the church competes with the snow-capped rooftops which spread upward in view. Toward the back there is a building that climbs up beyond our field of vision. The scene is bracketed on the right with a distant street. Simple black marks designate people on the street and small bright patches of red show us the lights on storefronts.

Cityscape by Alice Neel. Oil on canvass, 1934

The color palette is simple. The plummy brown of the brownstone buildings reaches up to the white of the snow-covered rooftops. Varying shades of grey make up the spire with darker shades for shadows. What is striking to me is the way the geometry of squares and rectangles are softened by the indistinct edges of the snow. Even though we know the buildings are squared on all sides, everything becomes softer and less distinct with the snow as it smooths out all clear lines. Even the spaces between buildings are marked by deepening shadow rather than light or the streets below. And the people on the street are abstract signs more that distinct human figures. Everything is cloaked in softness and shadow.   

The view of the city in Neel’s Cityscape is distant and quiet. It is not the city that turns up in the news or the town described by the developers for whom a structure does not exist until it is rendered as an object of monetary exchange. This view of the city or town is also not one that is focused on the crowds of humanity that usually make up the cities and the towns. Neel’s painting allows us to look at her town as one who is immersed not just in the life of the town, but in the physical make-up of the town itself. What we see in Neel’s painting is a view of the town as we view our own body from the vantage point of ourselves. All that we see is an extension of what we are.  

I can look out my window and see the distant church that was built by German immigrants more than a century ago. I see the rooftops of other buildings below and the sides of the building across from me that disappear from view as it towers over me. Off in the distance, people walk up and down the street. Some stand and wait for who knows what. And there are days and nights when the sharp features and clear edges of the buildings become indistinct whether it be from the fading light, the distortion of summer heat, or a snowy day that causes all movement to cease.

Alice Neel looked out a window in New York City, a city that is capable of capturing the attention of the entire world. But Alice Neel painted something that is not accessible to anyone anywhere but the one person who looked out the window during that span of time in 1934. And I look out my window at a town that is changing at a rate that no one can grasp. The twenty-first-century town operates at a pace that is linked to forms of communication that move at the speed of light. There are great minds and great powers that make this happen name and designate the town in terms that outstrip all our anonymous points of view from windows all over the city.

George Perec talked to us about spaces, about Species of Spaces, and I think he chose the term “species” for quite deliberate reasons. Spaces for us, for anyone who takes a few minutes to simply live where they happen to be, are geometrical and geographical life-forms. Spaces are the living openings in the world that hold us while we work, sleep, eat, read, dream, cry, rejoice, and simply sit and look out the window. While we habituate ourselves to these spaces, we become parts of them, and they become parts of us. The lines of distinction become blurred; they become softened and shaded with experience and meaning. Perec breaks species of spaces into various sizes and when he talks about the town; he tells us to “(g)et rid of all preconceived ideas. Stop thinking in ready-made terms, forget what the town planners and sociologists have said.” I think he is asking us to soften and shade the edges of the town. Stop making distinctions where we are taught to make distinctions. This becomes increasingly difficult in a world that codifies absolutely everything, including the component parts of the town. A window from a small anonymous space helps, though.

I watch—we all watch—as every available space in the town is rendered distinctly visible and assigned a specific meaning. Even the open spaces like public parks now come with spaces designated for scheduled activities and events complete with electronic soundtracks designed to create a certain “atmosphere.” Alleyways are now gated and chained, and everything is under electronic surveillance. What was old is not really made new so much as it is traced over like a faded manuscript that someone has written over so that the humanity of the original words is lost even if it legible again. Looking out my window at a view not unlike the image in Neel’s painting, I can still see what has always been: the signs, fading and peeling and written in German, the old bricks put in place over a century ago and clinging to each other with a greater tenacity than the people who now come here only to shop and dine, and I can see the indistinct, softened, and shaded spaces in between that refuse to provide information that is accessible to digital commerce but offer me the spaces for me to remember and to dream.

Perec tells us that we cannot find definitive answers and meanings in towns. The town simply is. “We shall never be able to explain or justify the town. The town is there. It’s our space, and we have no other.” As much as the planners, sociologists, and contemporary wizards of the shiny new world of the Twenty-first Century would have us believe that their explanations and justifications are the only ways to understand the town, the town is that it is. We need only have a little luck, good or bad, that places us at a window overlooking the rooftops with an old church spire somewhere in the distance. Perec’s final words on towns tell us that “there’s nothing inhuman in a town, unless it’s our own inhumanity.” Just beyond and beneath the concrete, the plummy-brown building fronts, the spire, and the snow, Neel could not help but to offer small abstract signs of humanity. Even as the contemporary town works so hard to deny humanity with the bitter paradox of electronic representations of it, our humanity remains. We are still able to sit and look out old windows from small anonymous spaces. We still see the old rooftops. And we are still able to let the edges and lines soften and shade into spaces that both conceal and sustain what makes us human.


Michael Templeton is an independent scholar, writer, and musician. He has published scholarly studies, cultural analysis, and creative non-fiction in several independent publications. He currently writes for a non-profit called the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife who is an artist.

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