“The Sweat of their Face: Portraying American Workers,” an exhibit on view at the National Portrait Gallery, contains well-known, even iconic, images.
These include “Power House Mechanic,” a black-and-white photograph by Lewis Hine; “The Miner,” an oil painting by Pat Lyon; “American Gothic,” by Gordon Parks, oil on beaver wood; “Mine America’s Coal,” by Norman Rockwell, “Cotton Pickers,” oil, by Winslow Homer, and “Migrant Mother,” a print by Dorothea Lange.
Other images are less known and even surprising, such as daguerreotypes by Joseph T. Zealy of semi-dressed slaves. Richard Avedon, best known for his work with celebrities and fashion icons, portrays migrant workers in a series of photographs.
But co-curators Dorothy Moss and David C. Ward are hoping that regardless of the individual images, viewers understand the exhibit’s goal.
The title of the exhibit comes from a verse in the Book of Genesis – the curse that man receives after eating the Tree of Knowledge. But work is also a road to salvation, say the co-curators, who are concerned that viewers understand the true intent of the exhibit.
“We’re not doing a history of the labor movement or a history of labor itself,” said Ward. “Rather, it’s a history of the art portraying labor and workers.”
The exhibit covers 1800 to the present, picking up after about 1840 when photography came into play.
“Before that, it was difficult to get images of working people,” said Ward. “Occasionally you’d see household servants or enslaved people in the South. But working people weren’t expected to be portrayed. Oil paintings were expensive.”
A portrait of George Washington and his family, for example, included an African-American butler, but he was off to the periphery.
Ward pointed out that even today, museums (like the Portrait Gallery) focus on “rich and famous people,” such as U.S. Presidents. “The Sweat of their Face” is a notable exception.
Photography was one force that changed the balance between classes, at least in the world of art. It was democratizing, making image-making cheap and portable.
The photographs, paintings, and other images are on loan from other institutions such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Phillips Collection, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, among others.
The accompanying text is bilingual, in English and Spanish.
“Part of the idea of the exhibit is about who gets into museums [as both artists and art],” Ward added. It used to be also about who frequented them. In the 1890s, a plumber who visited the Metropolitan Museum on his lunch hour wearing his dungarees was thrown out, “because he wasn’t dressed as he was supposed to be,” he said.
Although the exhibit doesn’t expressly focus on politics or social themes, it does touch on them.
The photographs of Lewis Hine, for example, which are among Ward’s “favorites,” combines elements of social reform in his images of little mill girls, but also “heroic work,” such as the Empire State Building.
Sometimes, Ward admitted, visitors to this or any exhibit ask, why wasn’t this or that included?
“We’re always more aware than any critic of ‘what’s missing’ from this that exhibit,” he said. “But I think we really succeeded in putting together exceptional fine arts here. The exhibit recognizes people who otherwise would have disappeared. Their lives and work would have passed from the scene. We’ve given them the permanence and immortality of presidents.”
“By the Sweat of their Face: Portraying American Workers” continues through Sept. 3, 2018. The National Portrait Gallery is part of the Donald W. Reynolds for American Art and Portraiture, located at Eighth and F Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C. For information, visit: www.npg.si.edu.