The Mural Collection at Harlem Hospital
In 2018, Community Works and New Heritage Theatre Group, in partnership with Harlem Hospital, mounted the harlem is… timeline in the Mural Pavilion placing the illustrated chronology in conversation with the landmark WPA murals presented here. In addition, they commissioned artist Paul Deo to create a contemporary mural in the adjacent entry that honors the history of Harlem and highlights the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s relationship to the hospital and the community. Community Works and New Heritage Theatre also curate contemporary art exhibitions in this space, creating a platform for the on-going celebration of local artists and visual arts that honor the diversity and spirit of the Harlem community.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs included the creation of a national work program called the Works Progress Administration (WPA). It included a special program called the Federal Art Project, a work relief program specifically for artists. In 1936, the murals at Harlem Hospital were the first WPA commission in the country given to African American artists. In celebration of African-American themes, beauty, and achievement, these murals were quite unique, and created controversy for their time when the original Hospital Superintendent rejected the design sketches for their “Negro subject matter.” Protests from the Harlem Artists Guild and the Artists Union reached Mayor LaGuardia and President Roosevelt and the murals were painted. Now, four of the five murals have been restored and are the centerpiece of Harlem Hospital’s renovation and revitalization.
Image Courtesy of Evergreen Studios
Pursuit of Happiness, oil on canvas,
Vertis Hayes, 1937
Vertis Hayes's 8-panel mural follows an arc of African-American history, transporting the viewer from Africa to America, from an African village to an American city peopled by African Americans in zoot suits and white nurse's uniforms. The mural also suggests the migration of African Americans from their agrarian lives in the South to the industrialized North, an experience of personal significance for the artist who himself migrated from Atlanta to New York.
Magic in Medicine, oil on canvas,
Modern Medicine, oil on canvas,
Charles Alston, 1940
Charles Alston's Magic in Medicine is situated opposite his Modern Medicine, offering contrast and dialogue between traditional and modern healing practices. The diptych imagines the history of healing and medicine in Africa and the United States. The sepia-toned Magic in Medicine incorporates a Fang reliquary sculpture, a type of ritual art piece from Gabon that was widely collected by Alston's contemporaries.
Modern Medicine focuses on Western medicine and issues of racial integration. The panel includes a variety of scientific instruments and portraits including microbiologist Louis Pasteur and surgeon Louis T. Wright, the first African-American physician appointed to the hospital staff and a personal friend of Alston.
Recreation in Harlem, Oil on plaster wall
Georgette Seabrooke Powell, 1937
Georgette Seabrooke’s Recreation in Harlem was originally commissioned for the nurses’ recreation room at the Harlem Hospital Center. The charming and colorful mural depicts community life in the 1930s: a couple dancing, children playing and wrestling, a group of women chatting, a group of women knitting, and an audience listening to a choir. Seabrooke later explained that here “attempt was to give the nurses something to look at, something they could partake in and find interesting…” Recreation in Harlem was sponsored by President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project, a work relief program for artists during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The series of murals created for Harlem Hospital, including the Seabrooke mural, represented the first major commissions awarded to African American artist as part of the WPA/FAP.
Georgette Seabrook studied at Cooper Union in New York City and later at Howard University. At 18 years old, she was the youngest master artist on the Harlem Hospital mural project and continued to pursue her craft throughout her life. Her works have been widely exhibited. In 2003, Powell received the Visionary Leadership Project, Legacy Keeper award, presented at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In April 2008, the Cooper Union presented Georgette Seabrook Powell with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Over the years the Seabrooke mural was affected by environmental conditions resulting in extensive damage. In 2004, it was determined that the work would be removed, stabilized, preserved, and ultimately reinstalled in the New Harlem Hospital Center Mural Pavilion. Restoration of this important work is ongoing.
Modern Surgery and Anesthesia, oil on canvas
Alfred D. Crimi, 1940
Alfred D. Crimi, the only white person employed as a master artist for the Harlem Hospital murals project, was originally commissioned to paint a series of five fresco panels for the Medical Board Room, but he only completed one, Modern Surgery and Anesthesia, before leaving to work on another federally sponsored art project in Washington, D.C. Modern Surgery and Anesthesia stands out from the other murals at Harlem Hospital because it depicts only white subjects.
For more on the history and renovation of the murals, visit the digital exhibition
HARLEM HOSPITAL WPA MURALS at
read the New York Times article on the restoration project:
The restoration of the murals was undertaken by EverGreene Architectural Arts. Learn more about their process here: