Exhibition | The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on November 21, 2017

Lewis Wickes Hine, Child Labor, ca. 1908; gelatin silver print
(Bank of America Collection)

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Press release (17 October 2017) for the exhibition:

The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C., 3 November 2017 — 3 September 2018

Curated by Dorothy Moss and David Ward

The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers presents nearly 100 portrayals of laborers by some of the nation’s most influential artists. The multifaceted exhibition includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, media art and photographs that reveal how American workers have shaped and defined the United States over the course of its history—from the Colonial era to the present day. The exhibition examines the intersections between work, art, and social history. The fully bilingual (English and Spanish) display is on view from November 3 until September 3, 2018.

John Rose, Miss Breme Jones, 1785–87, watercolor and ink on paper (Williamsburg: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, museum purchase, the Friends of Colonial Williamsburg Collections Fund).

The Sweat of Their Face includes portraits by Winslow Homer, Dorothea Lange, Elizabeth Catlett, Lewis Hine, Jacob Lawrence, and other renowned American artists. Power House Mechanic, a photograph by Lewis Hine, and The Riveter, by Ben Shahn, are significant works in their own right, but they also highlight the artist’s ability to recognize the vast population of anonymous workers and the contributions that their subjects have made. Furthermore, those depicted in The Sweat of Their Face—many of whom now appear as anonymous workers—draw attention to the relationships that exist between viewers, artists, and subjects.

“In The Sweat of Their Face, we explore who works, why, and how their surrounding conditions have changed and evolved over time,” said Kim Sajet, Director of the National Portrait Gallery. “In the early years of the 21st century, crucial questions persist over issues of jobs and workers’ rights, as well as larger issues of economic equality and social mobility. As we grapple with these questions, we might reflect on the labor of the workers from past epochs who have been brought out of anonymity and given the fullness of their humanity by some of America’s great fine artists.”

Spanning centuries and encompassing various genres, each of the artists in The Sweat of Their Face depicts an individual at a specific moment amidst America’s changing landscape, but as the exhibition reveals, some laborers remain the same. For example, migrant workers have always been a part of American labor’s story, and portraits such as Jean Charlot’s Tortilla Maker and photographs from the California fields are reminders that with immigration, the United States has benefited from cultural exchange, innovation, and economic growth.

This exhibition displays loans from such notable institutions 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 Sweat of Their Face is organized by curator of painting and sculpture, Dorothy Moss and historian emeritus, David C. Ward. An accompanying catalog presents essays by Moss, Ward, and British art historian John Fagg.

David Ward and Dorothy Moss,‎ with an essay by John Fagg, The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers Hardcover (Smithsonian Books, 2017), 224 pages, ISBN: 978 158834 6056, $40.

Work always has been a central construct in the United States, influencing how Americans measure their lives and assess their contribution to the wider society. Work also has been valued as the key element in the philosophy of self-improvement and social mobility that undergird the American value system. Yet work can also be something imposed upon people: it can be exploitative, painful, and hard. This duality is etched into the faces of the people depicted in the portraits showcased in The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers. This companion volume to an exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery examines working-class subjects as they appear in artworks by artists including Winslow Homer, Elizabeth Catlett, Danny Lyon, and Shauna Frischkorn. This richly illustrated book charts the rise and fall of labor from the empowered artisan of the eighteenth century through industrialization and the current American business climate, in which industrial jobs have all but disappeared. It also traces the history of work itself through its impact on the men and women whose laboring bodies are depicted. The Sweat of Their Face is a powerful visual exploration of the inextricable ties between American labor and society.

David C. Ward is the National Portrait Gallery’s senior historian. He has curated exhibitions on Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, American poetry, and the award-winning Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. He has also authored several books, including Charles Willson Peale: Art and Selfhood in the Early Republic. Dorothy Moss is director of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition and curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery. She has contributed to numerous exhibition catalogues, and her articles and essays have been published in The Burlington Magazine, Gastronomica, and American Art.

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