National Portrait Gallery exhibition celebrates workers


WASHINGTON – The idea for “The Sweat of Their Face,” an upcoming exhibition at Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, came from a plumber.

When Dorothy Moss, the museum’s curator of painting and sculpture, was researching her doctoral thesis, she found information from 1897 on a plumber who visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a break but was invited to leave because he was wearing overalls.

Thinking of the plumber, Moss turned to one of the central questions of museums: who are they for?

“The Sweat From Their Faces,” which she curated with lead museum historian David C. Ward, attempts to answer that question. Comprised of over 75 portraits of American workers from the 18th century to the present day, the gallery will open in November as part of the museum’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Although the selections were made months before the election, several of the exhibition’s themes are central to politics today: the role of the migrant worker, the lost glory of the coal miner, the devastation of the ‘factory.

What better time than now, Ms. Moss said, to think of ordinary life in an artistic sense, and in the nation’s capital.

Here are five highlights of the exhibition.

Mrs. Moss and Mr. Ward wanted to run the gallery with the most invisible of workers: the slave. In the typical portrait of the 18th and 19th centuries, they were elements of the background. They hardly reached the status of worker.

“Slaves are props,” Ms. Moss said of the artwork of the time. “They are on the outskirts.

“They are hidden from history,” Mr. Ward said.

John Rose, a South Carolina plantation owner who was not a professional painter, had a reason to reverse this pattern. Breme Jones, a slave, likely helped raise Mr. Rose’s children after the death of his first wife. He did the amateur painting of her as a tribute, with a passage from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” inscribed – a reference to Adam’s love for his fiancee.

Mr. Rose’s work was one of the oldest and most significant breaks with the way American artists portrayed work, at a time when the most famous portrait subject – George Washington – was often painted in presence of slaves.

“Miss Breme Jones illustrates the contradiction of slavery – no matter what ideologues have said, you cannot deny their humanity,” Mr Ward said.

There was, however, the harsh truth of Mr. Rose’s treatment of Mrs. Jones. “As tender as the portrait is,” Mr. Ward said, “he did not set her free as a slave.”

Child labor is visible throughout the gallery, a reminder of the devastating effects of American industrialization. They are there with tired eyes and ashy faces.

“Life was more difficult in the 19th century,” Mr. Ward said.

Jacob Riis, a renowned urban life columnist at the turn of the 19th century, photographed New York City with his case to remind people of the cruelty of post-industrial working conditions. Here, a young shoe shiner appears almost proud, wearing an expression of pleasure in his adult clothes. The alley in which he posed, with its stained bricks and decrepit windows, was his habitat. Work was everything.

“There was no social safety net,” Mr. Ward said. “There was no insurance. If you didn’t have a relatively well-off family, you might disappear. If you failed, you were dead.

The work isolated, forcing working class children to survive on their own, without the order and group orientation that defined the assembly lines and coal mines of the 20th century.

“Is there a family? Mr. Ward said. “A community? Or are they just on the street?”

Gordon Parks, Life magazine’s first black photographer, made one of 85 portraits of Ella Watson, a cleaning lady at the Treasury Department, which he tried to capture in both personal and professional moments.

The portrait is done in the “American Gothic” style, Grant Wood’s 1930 painting. There is a patriotic quality, calling attention to the dignity of looking after the halls of American institutions.

The sentiment for the portrait is especially acute in a city as status-conscious as Washington, where by the 1940s black workers mingled almost exclusively with white government personnel. Ms Moss and Mr Ward saw the portrait as an opportunity to make a national museum feel local, to encourage visitors to think of those who are just outside of Washington politics.

“Washington has become this double-caste city, with workers coming from Anacostia and across the river to work,” Mr. Ward said. “The cleaning lady is invisible, but she keeps the building going. “

Ms Moss said the piece may even remind her of the responsibility for the employees of her own museum.

“We are a government museum with caretakers, caretakers, who have more institutional knowledge than any of us,” she said.

No American worker was so romanticized in 2017 as the coal miner.

President Trump has put the miner at the center of his campaign’s appeal, organizing rallies with them while wearing a helmet. But their rise did not start during this presidential campaign.

The power of this imagery – the coal miner as an avatar of the “forgotten” common man – endures in Norman Rockwell’s painting, which functioned as a sort of populist propaganda tool during WWII, describing the miner as the ideal of the proud American Worker.

“Mine America’s Coal” was produced for a poster published by the War Manpower Commission urging Americans to support the country’s energy needs.

After the Great Depression, during World War II, the worker became heroic in American life.

“During World War II, there was this suddenness, like ‘We need these workers,'” Mr. Ward said. “He creates this image of worker humanity just because America needs him.”

Norman Rockwell’s portraits, Ms Moss said, are indicative of a time when popularized images of work were part of the fabric of public life – when the coal miner was an example, not a political cliché.

“We wanted to make sure we were balancing the fine art with other examples of lowbrow and mass-produced images that actually had a big impact on American audiences,” she said.

Ramiro Gomez’s work is part of a series of portraits highlighting the role of immigrant workers and undocumented migrants. Gomez, who comes from a working-class family in Los Angeles, shows how the worker can blend into a scene.

In this setting, a woman cleans the shower of a wealthy landlord, in a job in which she is anonymous, earning about $ 20,000 a year.

The play, based on David Hockney’s 1964 Man in Shower in Beverly Hills, is one of the most political – the most modern – in the gallery.

“Gomez is blurring faces for these people to replace the whole Latino community,” Ms. Moss said. “It’s a militant message.

Much of the exhibition shows distinct and often proud trades: barber, gardener, barbecue pit master, cabinetmaker, welder. Here there is shame.

“His head is turned away from the public, the back bent and the head slightly tilted, stripping it of its individuality”, notes the museum of the cleaner.

The exhibit, says Ms. Moss, is “about the people who built this country who are not named.”

“The sweat of their faces,” Mr. Ward said, “is the sweat of dignity.”


Julia P. Cluff