Dubbed the “white plague” and “consumption,”
tuberculosis was one of the most feared diseases of 19th and
early 20th century New York City.
Spread by bacteria that thrived in dark, crowded tenements, the
disease was so rampant in poor sections of the city that
entire blocks were labelled “lung blocks” because so many
residents were infected.
Though antibiotics helped drastically reduce the prevalence of
tuberculosis in New York City in the 20th century, it was still
a fearsome killer in the 1940s, as painter Alice Neel documents in
“TB Harlem,” from 1940.
“In this painting, Neel portrayed Carlos Negrón, the brother
of the artist’s then-lover, José Santiago,” states the
National Museum of Women
in the Arts (NMWA), which has the painting in its
Negrón is 24 years old and a resident of East Harlem, as was
Neel at the time. The bandage on his chest covers the wound from a
treatment called thoracoplasty, meant to help his diseased lung by
removing a rib.
“Although it encourages empathy, Neel’s painting is not
sentimental,” continues the NMWA.
“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
Source: FS – NYC Real Estate
A portrait of tuberculosis in 1940s East Harlem