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VIRGIL THOMSON (1896-1989)
by Alice Neel (1900-1984)
Composer Virgil Thomson began his musical training at age five, and by his twelfth year he was performing professionally on both piano and organ. In the mid-1920s he settled in Paris, where he began to compose original works. There he also became part of a cosmopolitan group of avant-garde musicians, writers, and painters then dominating the cultural life of the city. A close friend was the expatriate American writer Gertrude Stein, who wrote the librettos for his operas Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, the latter based on the life of suffragist Susan B. Anthony. By the late 1930s, Thomson was writing music for movies, and in 1948 his score for the film Louisiana Story won a Pulitzer Prize. Thomson was also a major spokesman for the new directions of twentieth-century music as critic for the New York Herald-Tribune from 1940 to 1954.

Alice Neel painted many of her colleagues in the world of arts and letters, particularly those in New York City, her home for many years. As she painted, Neel sometimes exaggerated the effect that the body or expression of her sitter had on her own mind. After Thomson's sitting, she wrote, "When I painted the trousers I must confess I thought of elephants so that is the color they really are."
Oil on canvas, 1971
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
NPG.84.70
Estate of Alice Neel
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