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A painting of a man in a white t-shirt sitting in a chair with fingers interlocked on top of/slightly behind his head, staring straight-forward with a blank expression on his face.

The Exhaustion of 2020: Taking a Breath

My grandfather, John Wallover, was a hard worker. He was a giant of a man who served in the army for three years, was a volunteer firefighter for 58 years, and mowed his own lawn past the age of 70. I have vivid memories of him finishing yard work, then sitting at the kitchen table in his white T-shirt and khakis. He would light up a cigarette and sit there for hours. My grandfather would always smile when any of his grandchildren would enter, a big goofy grin from ear to ear. But there were also moments when he hadn’t noticed me right away, when I would see a specific look on his face.

Alice Neel, Hartley, 1966

Alice Neel, Hartley, 1966, oil on canvas, Gift of Arthur M. Bullowa, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1991.143.2

Alice Neel’s Hartley reflects this look. In the painting, Neel’s youngest son is seated in a red chair. The background suggests a corner of a room—but just like the details of the chair, it does not seem as important to the painter as the figure. The young man’s arms are raised, hands clasped on top of his head.

His face, however, is where Neel’s attention is focused. The olive-green shadows exaggerate the contours, making her youngest appear much older. Gazing straight ahead, unfocused and distant, he seems uninterested in (or unaware of) his melting surroundings. This is the expression of an individual who feels the full weight of life on his shoulders and knows that tomorrow will bring more of the same.

Alice Neel is famous for revealing the psyche of her subjects. From Andy Warhol to children in Spanish Harlem, she dove deep into their souls to uncover the hidden person. In this piece, she unveils a universal feeling: exhaustion. It’s the same expression I saw on my grandfather’s face at the kitchen table. The same look I’ve seen on the faces of my fellow colleagues at the end of the workday. And one I’ve seen on myself, reflected in the bathroom mirror after a hectic, rainy day working in the checkroom at the National Gallery of Art.

Neel’s painting was finished in 1966, yet it foreshadows the exhaustion of 2020—the exhaustion of our medical professionals, emergency response personnel, essential workers, and all who feel the emotional weight of this historic year. We’re in unprecedented times, struggling against an invisible killer, our ever-changing environment, and the injustice that exists in society. The moment isn’t over—but it’s all right to take a breath. There is no shame in taking a seat. No guilt in reclining back. Nothing lost in letting your surroundings melt away for a time.

I used to look at Hartley and see myself in his eyes. Now, I see my grandfather. I see all the unspoken days of exhausting work, unending stacks of bills, and struggles of everyday life. I also see him tackling these problems one at a time. I know I can do the same. I know we all can.

But first, I need to rest. To sit at my kitchen table, focus on my breathing, and let my surroundings disappear.