Museum  October 24, 2017

“The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers” Opens Nov. 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery

Russian Steel Workers, Lewis Wickes Hine, 1909 (printed 1942), Gelatin silver print mounted on paperboard, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts. Transfer from Hillyer Art Library

The National Portrait Gallery’s upcoming exhibition “The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers” will present 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 will be on view Nov. 3 through Sept. 3, 2018.

“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” draw attention to the relationships that exist between the viewer, artist and subject, many of the people portrayed are anonymous workers.

Laborers and their work have been shaping this country since its inception. “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 will display 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.