Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

Painting of a woman in a red dress walking across a bridge
Old Mill (The Morning Bell) / Winslow Homer / Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven / Bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark, B.A. 1903

When we think of portraiture, especially oil painting, we usually think of it as an art form that celebrates individual achievement and success; we think of the great public portraits that laud political and military leaders. Creating a portrait gives a visual gloss to successful and important lives, commemorating the “good and the great” as exemplary lives worthy of emulation. Especially before photography, portraiture had an aura of privilege not least because commissioning a portrait was expensive and the process of making one was time consuming. Portraiture was validation for success in the Western world and grew to prize individual achievement, but it necessarily failed to depict the vast number of men and women who lived and worked in quiet anonymity, invisible to History, undepicted, and uncelebrated. Nonetheless, ordinary people did not completely escape the attention of artists, particularly in the United States. An ideology of democracy meant that ordinary people would be a subject for both writers and visual artists; a democratic culture required democratic art. So while portraiture was always (and remains) oriented to the exemplary, exceptional lives, it can also expand its gaze to pick out and make visible the representative lives of working people, farmers, and even the enslaved. Tracing the history of these portraits of the ordinary not only provides a visual commentary on the development of the American economy but also contributes to the history of portraiture itself, as it has become more democratic, more expansive, and more inclusive.

Photograph of a man against a black background wearing a food service uniform
Kean, Subway Sandwich Artist / Shauna Frischkorn / 2014 / Courtesy of the Artist / © Shauna Frischkorn

The Sweat of their Face: Portraying American Workers is a visual survey of American workers from the late eighteenth century to the present day. The title of the exhibition derives from the Biblical book of Genesis and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden with the injunction that thereafter men and women would have to work for their living. The consequences of the Fall, in secular terms, resulted in both worldly toil and in the possibility of great creativity as human beings set about making the world. This divided legacy, including both terrible exploitation and monumental achievement, is depicted in The Sweat of their Face by both the subjects and artistry of the portraits in the exhibition. Crossing all genres, from grand manner oil painting to photography to installation art, The Sweat of their Face charts the transformation of America from a society of artisans and small producers into an industrial juggernaut of giant factories and corporations. It also reveals the consequences of the late twentieth century’s “deindustrialization” as the old economic centers, the so-called “Rust Belt”—lost their previously pre-eminent positions in the economy. While there have been many documentary histories of American labor and of the American labor movement, The Sweat of their Face is distinctive because it uses the lens of a fine art to survey the changing condition of labor in the United States. The exhibition includes works by such noted artists as John Neal, Winslow Homer, Lewis Hine, Elizabeth Catlett, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Shauna Frischkorn, and others who took as their subjects, and made heroic, the ordinary people who made America.