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National Portrait Gallery Exhibition Celebrates Workers

Though the selections were made months before the election, several of the exhibition’s themes are essential to today’s politics: the role of the migrant worker, the lost glory of the coal miner, the devastation of the factory.

What better time than now, Ms. Moss said, to think about ordinary life in an artistic sense, and in the nation’s capital.

Here are five highlights from the exhibition.


A slave is the subject of “Miss Breme Jones,” by John Rose, a plantation owner who was not a professional painter. The portrait is accompanied by a passage from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” — a reference to Adam’s love of his bride.

John Rose, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum

‘Miss Breme Jones’ by John Rose, 1785-1787

Ms. Moss and Mr. Ward wanted to lead the gallery with the most invisible of workers: the slave. In typical portraiture of the 18th and 19th centuries, they were features of the background. They hardly reached the status of a laborer.

“Slaves are accessories,” Ms. Moss said of artwork of the time. “They’re on the periphery.”

“They’re hidden from history,” Mr. Ward said.

John Rose, a South Carolina plantation owner who was not a professional painter, had a reason to subvert that pattern. Breme Jones, a slave, likely helped raise Mr. Rose’s children after the death of his first wife. He made the amateur painting of her as a tribute, with a passage from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” inscribed — a reference to Adam’s love of his bride.

Mr. Rose’s work was one of the earliest and most significant breaks from the ways American artists depicted labor, at a time when the most famous portrait subject — George Washington — was often painted in the presence of slaves.

“Miss Breme Jones exemplifies the contradiction of slavery — no matter what the ideologues said, you couldn’t deny their humanity,” Mr. Ward said.

There was, however, the harsh truth of Mr. Rose’s treatment of Ms. Jones. “However tender the portrait,” Mr. Ward said, “he didn’t free her as a slave.”


A young shoe shiner is the subject of “Tommy (Holding His Bootblack Kit)” by Jacob Riis. Child labor is seen throughout the portrait exhibition.

Jacob Riis, Museum of the City of New York

‘Tommy (Holding His Bootblack Kit)’ by Jacob Riis, 1890

Child labor is seen throughout the gallery, a reminder of the devastating effects of American industrialization. They are there with tired eyes and ash-streaked faces.

“Life was harder in the 19th century,” Mr. Ward said.

Jacob Riis, a renowned chronicler of urban life at the turn of the 19th century, took photographs around New York City with his box camera to remind people of the cruelty of postindustrial working conditions. Here, a young shoe shiner appears almost proud, wearing an expression of pleasure in his adult clothing. The alley he posed in, with its stained brick and decrepit windows, was his habitat. Work was everything.

“There was no social safety net,” Mr. Ward said. “There was no insurance. If you didn’t have a family that was relatively well off, you could disappear. If you failed, you were dead.”

Labor was isolating, forcing the children of the working class to survive on their own, without the order and group orientation that defined the assembly lines and coal mines of the 20th century.

“Is there a family?” Mr. Ward said. “A community? Or are they just on the streets?”


“Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman (American Gothic),” by Gordon Parks, shows Ella Watson, a cleaner at the Treasury Department.

The Gordon Parks Foundation, National Gallery of Art

‘Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman (American Gothic)’ by Gordon Parks, 1942

Gordon Parks, the first black staff photographer for Life magazine, made this one of 85 portraits of Ella Watson, a cleaner at the Treasury Department he tried to capture in moments personal and professional.

The portrait is done in the style of “American Gothic,” Grant Wood’s 1930 painting. There is a patriotic quality to it, calling attention to the dignity of looking after the halls of American institutions.

The feeling of the portrait is especially acute in a city as status-conscious as Washington, where in the 1940s black laborers would mix with almost exclusively white government staffs. Ms. Moss and Mr. Ward saw the portrait as an opportunity to make a national museum feel local, to encourage visitors to think of those just outside of political Washington.

“Washington became this dual-caste city, with workers coming in from Anacostia and across the river to work,” Mr. Ward said. “The charwoman is invisible, but she’s keeping the building going.”

Ms. Moss said that the piece could even remind her of the responsibility of her own museum’s employees.

“We’re a government museum with custodians, guards, who have more institutional knowledge than any of us,” she said.

‘Mine America’s Coal’ by Norman Rockwell, 1944

No American worker has been romanticized in 2017 as much as the coal miner.

President Trump made the miner central to his campaign’s appeal, holding rallies with them while wearing a hard hat. But their elevation did not start during this presidential campaign.

The power of that imagery — the coal miner as the avatar for the common, “forgotten” man — endures in Norman Rockwell’s painting, which functioned as a kind of populist propaganda tool during World War II, portraying the miner as the ideal of the proud American worker.

“Mine America’s Coal” was made for a poster that was published by the War Manpower Commission, urging Americans to back the country’s energy needs.

After the Great Depression, during World War II, the laborer became heroic in American life.

“During WWII, there was this suddenness, like, ‘We need these workers,’ ” Mr. Ward said. “He creates this image of the humanity of the worker just because America needs him.”

Norman Rockwell’s portraits, Ms. Moss said, are revealing of a time when popularized images of work were part of the fabric of public life — when the coal miner was an example, not a political cliché.

“We wanted to make sure that we were balancing fine art with other examples of lowbrow and mass-produced imagery that actually had a great impact on the American public,” she said.


“Woman Cleaning Shower in Beverly Hills,” by Ramiro Gomez, demonstrates how a worker can blend into a scene.

Ramiro Gomez

‘Woman Cleaning Shower in Beverly Hills’ by Ramiro Gomez, 2013

Ramiro Gomez’s work is one in a series of portraits highlighting the role of undocumented immigrant and migrant workers. Gomez, who is from a working-class family in Los Angeles, demonstrates how the worker can blend into a scene.

In this setting, a woman cleans the shower of a wealthy homeowner, part of a job in which she is anonymous, making about $20,000 a year.

The piece is one of the most political — the most modern — in the gallery.

“Gomez blurs the faces to make these people stand in for the whole Latino community,” Ms. Moss said. “It’s an activist message.”

Much of the exhibition shows jobs that are distinct and often prideful: barber, gardener, barbecue pit master, cabinetmaker, welder. Here, there is some shame.

“Her head is turned away from the audience, with her back bent and her head slightly bowed, stripping her of her individuality,” the museum notes of the cleaner.

The exhibition, Ms. Moss says, is “about people who built this country who are unnamed.”

“The sweat of their faces,” Mr. Ward said, “is the sweat of dignity.”

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