Alice Neel's emotional intelligence and her commitment to figurative painting during the heyday of American abstract expressionism marked her out as a maverick. A painter of social movements, historic events and cultural trends, she could be described as the Diane Arbus of painting. But whereas Arbus exposed "freaks", Neel revealed human vulnerability in all its rawness and tenderness.
Though her career stretched from the 1920s to the early 1980s, Neel was an isolated figure. A woman painting during a period when realist art - dependent on narrative and pictorial illusion - was seen in modernist circles as retrograde, she had her work drowned under a welter of high-minded, essentially male, abstraction. Portraiture of the kind she liked was regarded as bourgeois, subjective, tied to traditional techniques.Now, for the first time in Europe, the Whitechapel is presenting 60 major works that span her career. The exhibition includes portraits of children, pregnant nudes, the elderly and cityscapes, along with two films that show Neel painting.
From Picasso, who distorted and fragmented the body, to the gestural simplifications of Willem de Kooning, the portrait in the postwar period had become anti-individualistic: a generalised signifier for existential disquiet, rather than a disclosure of individual character. While some of Neel's works share the unforgiving vision of Otto Dix or Max Beckmann, she saw herself as committed to a "combination of realism and expressionism". Like Balzac, whom she greatly admired, she used her talents to depict ordinary lives, exposing oppression and hardship wherever she found it.
Motherhood preoccupied Neel. Wide-eyed mothers and babies cling to each other, haunted by exhaustion and anxiety. A painting of her Haitian cleaning woman, Carmen, whose beatific face contrasts with the wraithlike body of her disabled child lying in her lap, unable to locate her nipple, is enough to bring a lump to the throat. That is the power of Alice Neel's work and a reminder of what great art can do.
“Alice Neel" runs until 17 September
Sue Hubbard's "Adventures in Art: Selected Writings (1990-2010)" is published by Other Criteria (£25)