December 2017Spectacle

A two-century tour through the World of Work in the US

By the end of the 18th century, the Western art world had moved on from the themes that had predominated for centuries: portrayals of episodes from the Bible and classic mythology, and heroic portraits of kings, popes, and warriors. The artists we now call modern increasingly adopted the world around them as their subject matter, a world that was still largely agrarian and yet was in the process of being reshaped by industrialization and by revolutions in energy, transportation, and conquest.

Images of men and women at work became popular subject matter; in Europe, Degas became obsessed with ballerinas, while Van Gogh was depicting peasants in southern France. The advent of photography exponentially increased the opportunities for capturing working life as it was being lived. By the 20th century, work and workers were major themes of the arts; in its extreme state, there was Socialist Realism, but 20th-century artists in America, as well other countries in the capitalist world, also often turned to the world of work for its subject matter, from Jacob Lawrence through Ralph Fasanella and beyond.

A new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers, looks at two centuries of Americans at labor through painting, photography, and sculpture. It is an expansive exhibit, but represents only a slice of the images of workers and working that have been produced in that time - a week's worth of newspaper photos from major dailies could fill an exhibit on that subject. But it offers an intriguing selection of images that provides insight into the evolution of attitudes toward the world of work, specifically, manual labor. While workers also include those who work in offices, classrooms, and hospitals, this exhibit emphasizes the "sweat" of its title.

Early American depictions of work tended to be idealized. John Neagle's 1829 oil painting of blacksmith Pat Lyon shows the workman dressed in his apron, confidently looking the viewer in the eye, master of his forge and craft. Likewise, elegantly dressed Charles Wilson Fleetwood, Jr., a free African-American "chief steward" in Baltimore, beams at the viewer in Thomas Waterman Wood's 1855 oil as he pours a glass of wine. In early daguerreotypes, a weaver and a cooper gaze directly at the camera, poised and displaying the tools of their trade with pride.

Winslow Homer produced a large body of painting that idealized 19th-century rural life, and the exhibition contains three of these works: Haymaker, Girl with Pitchfork, and Old Mill (The Morning Bell), whose agrarian subjects are at ease in their picturesque settings. But the world of work was changing during Homer's career - roughly the last half of the 1800s - as the self-employed masters of their craft were rapidly being forced into wage-labor jobs that were coming to dominate the economy. Homer himself produced the wood engraving New England Factory Life - "Bell Time" with a shift of workers leaving for the day, their pale, drawn faces attesting to their harsh, low-status existence. Several of the figures depicted are children. Likewise, his engraving of a somber "bobbin girl" at her loom depicts the tedium of a life of nonstop, repetitive labor.

As the exhibit moves into the late 19th century and the early 20th, the portraits become less romanticized and more gritty, and the workers show the strain and the loss of control over their labor. An 1868 print by photography pioneer Timothy Sullivan of a silver miner at work shows the job at its most difficult and dangerous. Lewis Hine's early 20th-century photographs of preadolescent factory workers provided images to support the growing chorus against child labor. The subject of Max Kalish's bronze sculpture The End of the Day exhibits fatigue and resignation but also resourcefulness and strength.

Yet even workers performing the most difficult and dangerous jobs - and often even low-wage ones - exude pride in their work. Other Hine photos depict five Russian steel workers in Pennsylvania standing tall and facing the camera in poses of solidarity, and a powerhouse mechanic whose body seems to be a part of the machinery he operates. Ben Shahn painted riveters, carpenters, and welders at ease with their tools, and Jacob Lawrence's cabinetmaker practically melds with his hammer and T-square.

Several of the images aim to make visible the often-invisible workers who labor out of sight of most of us. Painter Ramiro Gomez takes the scene of David Hockney's Man Taking Shower in Beverly Hills and replaces the man with a housekeeper cleaning the stall after Hockney's subject has moved on to presumably more elevated pursuits. Celebrated photographer Gordon Parks portrays a government charwoman standing in front of a giant flag holding a broom and mop, consciously reflecting the pose of Grant Wood's American Gothic, showing us she, too, is America.

The depiction of women in the workforce is revealing, both in what is shown and not shown. There is a scarcity of images of women performing noncompensated domestic chores, the type of work performed by most women during much of the past two centuries. The museum's curators were clearly not listening to those who have argued that unpaid work in the home is every bit as important as office or factory work. Nevertheless, the depictions of factory workers, weavers, and seamstresses as far back as the early 19th century show that women have long been a part of the paid workforce and were not an invention of the Rosie the Riveter era of the Second World War - although the iconic "We Can Do It" propaganda poster is indeed on display, as well as a striking photo by Howard R. Hollem showing a young woman confidently operating a lathe during wartime. A less rosy depiction of the woman worker is Dorothea Lange's famous Depression-era photo of the "Migrant Mother," her face a road map of the poverty, stress, and uncertainly suffered by her family.

Slaves were a major part of the American workforce up to 1865, but the exhibit depicts only a handful of them; such portraits were, the exhibit catalogue explains, "extremely rare precisely because of their social position: they were legally considered chattel (i.e., things), not human beings." There are no images of workers toiling in the fields, and only a handful of depictions of female domestic servants. The oldest work in the exhibit, Miss Breme Jones from 1785-87, is an affectionate watercolor-and-ink portrait of a domestic slave by her master, John Rose — although we don't know if the affection was mutual.

As the exhibit moves toward the present day, migrant workers appear more frequently in the images, the most striking being a large photo print of a young Latino, bathed in sweat and staring directly at the viewer. And the exhibit shows that forced labor did not end with Emancipation. One photograph shows a young man, possibly not out of his teens, staring at the camera while he and other men work in the field. The photo's title, Two Years, Burglary, reveals that he is an inmate in a prison labor gang.

Near the end of the exhibit are two contrasting sculptures. The subject of the hyperrealistic, life-sized The Gardener (Melissa with Bob Marley Shirt) exudes strength, the dignity of hard work, and African-American pride. Next to it is Josh Klein's surrealistic Nine to Five, in which a human head and other body parts share space on a janitor's cart with cleaning supplies, a commentary on how society dehumanizes the low-status worker.

Entirely missing from the exhibit are any images of strikes, labor actions, union meetings, or virtually any depictions of the relationship of the worker to the employer. The workers seem to be working for work itself, rather than as cogs in a capitalist machine. Not that there would be any lack of such depictions to be had; the curators could have used some of the images from the Portrait Gallery's recent tribute to United Farm Workers co-founder (and DSA member) Dolores Huerta, or borrowed from the extensive collection at AFL-CIO headquarters.

As such, The Sweat of Their Faces — as useful and absorbing as it is — tells only part of the story of the American worker, and a somewhat sanitized one. Nevertheless, the National Portrait Gallery deserves credit for an exhibit that shows the humanity of the American at work, something too rarely accomplished.

The exhibit ends on Sept. 3, 2018.

See more in categoryReturn to Issue