The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers


John George Brown, The Longshoremen's Noon, Oil on canvas, 1879, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution.

One hundred years ago, Eugene Debs told a federal courtroom, “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” Debs went on to jail for having violated the Sedition Act during World War I; from his cell he ran a fifth and final campaign for president on the Socialist ticket that won over 900,000 votes. However, much it might please his ghost to observe the enthusiasm for socialist ideas in certain quarters of America today, the occupation of the White House by Donald Trump—a nonpareil of useless millionaires, sleazier and stupider than his Gilded Age predecessors—might give him pause to consider just how much he had ever really known about the destiny of the American worker.

Debs would surely scratch his head, too, at the sight of his own likeness in marble on display at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. First they jail you, then they put you on a pedestal. Complementing that irony elsewhere in the museum is a new exhibition called The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers, filled with more images of people who could never have expected to appear on the walls of a museum. Public figures might expect to, and the wealthy who commission their own portraits might wish to, but not grape-pickers, almond-polers, tortilla-makers, chauffeurs, butlers, or barbers.

Curated by the Portrait Gallery’s Dorothy Moss and David C. Ward, The Sweat of Their Face “aims to re-inscribe the important roles that laborers have had in shaping the United States since the colonial era.” The attention American artists have given American laborers has varied depending on the historical moment. New Deal sympathies and wartime imperatives, for example, inspired a flourishing of art across different mediums with workers at its center, cast as embodiments of the national character. The best-known workers in this exhibit are familiar because the government directed the public’s attention toward them: Rosie the Riveter, Dorothea Lange’s dust-blown mother and children, Lewis Hine’s little girls at their looms. Others, like the enslaved Miss Breme Jones, whose watercolor and ink portrait by her master, John Rose, is among the earliest works included, were only incidentally saved from obscurity.

By making American workers the subject of their own exhibition, with the common experience of work emphasized over the structural disparities that have ordered working lives, Moss and Ward invite the public to a new appreciation of working people as figures in the history of American art. Cracked hands; creased skin; swollen muscles; sweaty faces; expressions of fatigue and pride; postures of self-ownership or submission—the ways work is borne in the body form the most vivid inquiry of this exhibit. It’s in the butler’s poise and the washerwoman’s hunched back, and in the drenched hair and chest of the migrant worker photographed by Richard Avedon in South Texas for the In the American West series. Because this is the Smithsonian, where the curation must ultimately bend toward conciliation, Moss and Ward can’t help the public much in drawing political conclusions from these workers. Instead, the art adds up in your muscles, each depiction a challenge to imagination and empathy. You can feel for each worker and with them, maybe, but the particular frustrations and pleasures of their job belong to them alone, barely penetrable to the art-workers who depicted them.

Lewis Wickes Hine, Child Labor, c. 1908, Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution.

And what could that day have been like for them, when the artist showed up and asked for a minute of their time? A baffling few hours remembered as the easiest day’s wages they ever made, when the painter paid them to sit still. An order from the master to pose with his daughter, as the anonymous enslaved woman does in an ambrotype from 1860, no different than any other of the master’s orders. The damndest thing, when the fashion photographer from New York City appeared beside the Rio Grande with a giant roll of incandescent white paper and, pointing to a Mexican worker near the bank, said him. Each collaboration sees the worker take a new job: that of the artist’s subject, while the artist decides how to separate the dancer from the dance. The photographer Shauna Frischkorn makes “Kean, Subway Sandwich Artist” look like a Dutch burgher.

But Gordon Parks’s portrait of Ella Watson, a janitor he met on his first day as a photographer at the Farm Security Administration, seems to verge beyond collaboration into collusion against the neat accord of “American” and “worker” hazarded by this exhibit. “She was black, and I eased into conversation with her,” Parks recalled in his memoir. “Hardly an hour had gone by when we finished, but she had taken me through a lifetime of drudgery and despair in that hour.” He asked to take her picture, and posed her with a mop and broom in the style of American Gothic before an American flag. “Now think about what you told me,” he instructed her, “and look straight into this camera.”

The bitter truths suggested by Watson’s portrait about how deeply labor has always conditioned citizenship in this country, about what we as a country have to show for all the toil, can’t find expression in this exhibit. As long as we maintain a social order that keeps millions of Americans in thrall to drudgery their entire lives—an order that precludes a lot of artistic expression by working-class Americans, by the way—we can expect these depictions to remind us of work left to do.


Andrew Holter

Andrew Holter is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.