By Ken Tucker
May 26, 2009 at 05:14 PM EDT

The Sundance Channel is airing films about female artists all week, one a night at 7 p.m. EST. Tonight, it’s an entrancing documentary, Alice Neel, about the great portrait painter (1900-1984). The 2007 film, directed by her grandson, Andrew Neel, both reconfirms Neel as one of the most original portraitists of the 20th century and opens up a family can of worms.

As an artist, Neel painted richly colored pictures of family, friends, and the famous (Andy Warhol, poets Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara, and New York mayor Ed Koch were among her subjects). As the art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote recently, “Neel’s [art], beyond being something to look at, is something that happens to you.”

She came across as a strong-willed but occasionally dotty-seeming lady, especially as she grew older. (There’s footage of her on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Imagine a time when the network late-night talk shows booked real artists. Nowadays, it’s likely only Craig Ferguson would have the knowledge and interest in doing such a fine thing.)

But Andrew Neel digs into his grandmother’s personal life, unearthing a certain bitterness in her two sons, Richard (who so thoroughly rejected his mom’s bohemian lifestyle, he became a Nixon-loving lawyer) and Hartley (a doctor who is more forgiving of his mother’s assiduous devotion to art beyond conventional parenting).

Watch it for the psychodrama, watch it for the art: Either way, it’s a terrific film.