Urgent Museum Notice

T.B. Harlem

Close up of T.B. Harlem

A sick man with medium skin tone lies on a bed with purple bedding and stares out with a dignified expression. The left side of his chest is misshapen and covered with a white bandage. Thick outlines define his body and highlights on his arms and face accentuate his frail frame.

Alice Neel, T.B. Harlem, 1940; Oil on canvas, 30 x 30 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © The Estate of Alice Neel/Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York

T.B. Harlem
Alice Neel

Like many of Alice Neel’s portraits of her Spanish Harlem neighbors, T.B. Harlem calls attention to poverty as a social issue without sacrificing the subject’s individuality.

In this painting, Neel portrayed Carlos Negrón, the brother of the artist’s then-lover, José Santiago. Negrón, 24 years old here, had moved to New York’s Spanish Harlem from his native Puerto Rico just two years earlier. Tuberculosis spreads easily in overcrowded urban neighborhoods, and in 1940 the available treatments were drastic. The bandage on Negrón’s chest covers the wound from his thoracoplasty, a procedure to collapse and “rest” the tuberculosis-infected lung by removing ribs.

Although it encourages empathy, Neel’s painting is not sentimental. While retaining Negrón’s likeness, Neel distorted and elongate his neck and arms. She used heavy, dark lines to emphasize and flatten his silhouette. The lines around his wound draw attention to the sunken misshapenness of his left side. Negrón’s face expresses dignity in suffering while his pose and the gesture of his right hand recall traditional images of the martyred Christ.

Artwork Details

  • Artist

    Alice Neel
  • Title

    T.B. Harlem
  • Date

  • Medium

    Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions

    30 x 30 in.
  • Donor Credit

    Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay
  • Photo Credit

    © The Estate of Alice Neel/Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York
  • On Display