Philly Artist Paints Only Authorized Portrait of Chelsea Manning


chelsea manning

You’ve likely seen the above image of Chelsea Manning that’s accompanied nearly every story of her since it was announced that she was transitioning. Manning was never happy with the image and the way it portrayed her, so she and supporters set out to find an alternative, something to send to the media that reflects her in a better, more realistic light.

The answer? A portrait by a relatively unknown Philadelphia artist and UArts grad named Alicia Neal. But it wasn’t going to be an easy job. A detailed article on theverge.com explains:

[The Chelsea Manning Support Network] struck on the idea of a painted portrait, but even that would be difficult. Because of restrictive visitation rights at Ft. Leavenworth military prison, the portrait would have to be sent back and forth for revisions through the mail.

Manning drew a rough self-portrait of herself and sent it to the Support Network. There, they scanned the image and sent it out to … Neal.

Manning’s original self-portrait, Neal told me, was “really, really simple — maybe what you’d expect from a high schooler.” She was told that Manning wanted “black-framed glasses and more feminine features, like lipstick.” Neal’s painting was the one Manning liked best, and so she was chosen to paint Chelsea’s first — and so far only — authorized portrait.

“I had some performance anxiety,” Neal says. “Normally when I work with a client, I get to speak to them directly to get their opinion. Not being able to speak with Chelsea directly was even more nerve-wracking.” Over the next two months, Neal sent drafts to [Support Network organizer] Emma Cape, who would forward them onto Manning for notes and wait for a response before relaying edits back to the artist. “The direction they wanted to go in was sort of a political portrait,” Neal says. “They wanted something that was professional, but also casual.”

You’ll find the final result below.

Chelsea Manning portrait by Alicia Neal

Chelsea Manning portrait by Alicia Neal

According to Cape, Manning is happy with the portrait, except for one minor detail: “The only criticism Chelsea had,” Cape says, “is that since she’s been in prison, she’s been working out every day. Now, she has a slimmer-looking face.”

Read more about Neal’s experience creating the portrait, and see some of the earlier iterations here.