Palmer Hayden


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Painter. An African American who depicted contemporary black life and folklore, he also painted cityscapes, seascapes, and other subjects. His best-known work, The Janitor Who Paints (Smithsonian American Art Museum, c. 1937), poignantly honors African-American struggles to earn creative legitimacy. In a cramped space further crowded by a prominent foreground garbage can, the artist-janitor, equipped with palette and beret, paints a mother with her child, a snoozing cat at her feet. Twelve paintings relating the legendary life of railroad-worker folk hero John Henry (California African American Museum, Los Angeles, 1944–47) constitute a major statement on the dignity of black workers and their contribution to the life of the nation. Born Peyton Cole Hedgeman in Wide Water, Virginia, he worked as a young man at numerous, mostly back-breaking jobs and served in the U.S. Army. At the age of thirty he settled in New York, determined to become an illustrator, but soon realized his true interest lay in painting. Early in 1927 he departed for five years of study and work in Paris. There he met Alain Locke and made his earliest paintings of blacks, later the central focus of his work. After his return, he participated in federal art projects between 1934 and 1940. He died in New York. Given the academically conventional control evident in other works, he presumably chose to favor the naive stylistic qualities often seen in his animated and sympathetic depictions of blacks. Perhaps he regarded deviations from European tradition particularly suited to African-American subjects. Although Hayden rejected the accusation that he sometimes perpetuated negative racial images, some works incorporate what appear to be pejorative stereotypes derived from white caricature. The black arts community of the time roundly condemned these images, which may have been sardonically conceived, but his intent remains unclear.

Subjects: Art.

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