Hayden, Palmer 1890—1973
Palmer Hayden 1890—1973
Palmer Hayden was one of the more controversial painters associated with the Harlem Renaissance—the flowering of black American culture that began in the 1920s. Influenced by a wide range of styles, Palmer referred frequently to both African and American folklore, at times rendering black figures that, his critics claimed, played to racist stereotypes. Yet his reputation in the latter half of the twentieth century suggests that in certain respects Hayden may have been ahead of his time. The artist “presented ordinary people doing ordinary work with such vitality that it transcended all ethnic boundaries,” museum founder and art historian Samella Lewis wrote in a statement quoted by the Los Angeles Times. In his contribution to the anthology Harlem Renaissance: The Art of Black America, David Driskell dubbed Hayden “one of the first painters to offer a candid, if somewhat controversial, interpretation of black life.”
He was born Peyton Cole Hedgeman in Wide Water, Virginia, in 1890. As a young man, he traveled to West Virginia and worked on the railroad; his labors there evidently influenced his choice of subject matter over the years, especially his acclaimed series of paintings detailing the legend of hammer-wielding hero John Henry. At the outset of World War I, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving at both West Point and in the Philippines. It was because his white commanding officer could not pronounce his name that he came to be called Palmer Hayden, a moniker he retained for the rest of his life.
Though he had shown some talent for making pictures as a child, he received his first formal art training while in the military, enrolling in a correspondence course in drawing.
He settled in New York after the war. The year was 1919, and the city’s black community was in the midst of a remarkable cultural movement that saw new developments in literature, drama, music, and the visual arts. This multi-faceted “Renaissance” was centered in the largely black community of Harlem, which had been a fashionable white neighborhood until an economic bust forced developers to fill residences quickly with black laborers. “As the center of the New Negro Movement that encouraged migration as an act of spiritual emancipation,” wrote Alan G. Artner in the Chicago Tribune, “Harlem proved a magnet for blacks from all over the country. They relocated to elect options for self-definition not available anywhere else.” Self-definition was so integral to the cultural mission of the Harlem Renaissance that many of its leaders looked to Africa for inspiration rather than the European avant-garde.
Hayden “lived in New York during the formative years of that pivotal period [the Harlem Renaissance],” wrote Regenia A. Perry in an essay accompanying an omnibus exhibit at the National Museum of American Art. Even
At a Glance…
Born Peyton Cole Hedgeman, January 15, 1890, Widewater, VA; died February 18, 1973, New York, NY; son of John and Nancy Hedgeman; married Miriam. Education: Studied art at Cooper Union, New York, NY, c. early 1920s, Boothbay Colony, Maine, 1925, and at Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1927.
Served in U.S. military, 1914-19; Painter, 1919-1973. Moved to New York, NY, 1919, and worked odd jobs during 1920s; worked in Paris, Brittany and Normandy, 1927-32; returned to New York, 1933; undertook art projects for U.S. Treasury Department and WPA, 1934-38; produced series of paintings depicting legendary figure John Henry, 1944-54; commissioned to paint series on black American soldiers by Creative Artist Public Service Program (CAPS) of New York, 1973; exhibited in solo and group shows in United States and Europe.
Selected awards: William E. Harmon first Award and gold Medal in Fine Arts, 1926; private $3,000 grant to study in Paris, 1927; Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Prize, 1933; CAPS fellowship, 1973.
so, she acknowledged, his “association” with the movement “was more spiritual than stylistic.” He began art studies at New York’s Cooper Union, under the tutelage of Victor Perard, and worked odd jobs in the Greenwich Village area. These jobs included janitorial work, another occupation that influenced his later painting. According to Lowery Stokes Sims of American Visions, Hayden also did some paid artistic work for a circus troupe, “for which he produced show advertisements in a direct, simplified ‘folk’ style.”
He was given a boost by his affiliation with the Harmon Foundation, one of the first organizations to aid black American artists with cash and connections. In 1925 he began studying under Asa G. Randall at the Boothbay Art Colony in Maine; there he produced some seascapes and other scenic work that gained him some interest. Critic James Porter, who heaped disdain on the artist’s later work, asserted in his book Modern Negro Art that “the sea and sailing ships are Hayden’s preferred subject matter.” The year 1926 saw him receive the William E. Harmon First Award and Gold Medal in Fine Arts at an exhibition of black art at the Harmon foundation; Hayden had developed a friendship with the Harmon’s founding director and worked at the Foundation for several years. It was The Schooner, a work painted in Maine, that won him these laurels.
Yet the painter had already begun to demonstrate an interest in new subject matter. During the same year that he received the Harmon Foundation award, he finished Fetiche et Fleurs (Fetish and Flowers). Driskell noted that the work “highlights a Fang mask from Gabon and Bakuba raffia cloth from the Congo (now Zaire), which have been placed in a traditional still-life setting.” While at least one of Hayden’s contemporaries hailed what was perceived as the painter’s modernist style, Driskell added, “Hayden was not a modernist in his stylistic approach. Instead he broke with tradition by depicting African art in his paintings.”
In 1927, Hayden was given a private grant for $3,000 to study in Paris. Working privately with an instructor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he further explored the “folklore” themes that had begun to emerge after Maine. The following year saw a Hayden solo show at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. Several subsequent group shows in the city featured his work, including the 1931 American Legion Exhibition, which helped introduce Europe to “Negro” American art. Despite his residency in France, Hayden still managed to participate in annual Harmon shows.
He returned to the United States in 1932 and worked steadily over the next several years for the U.S. government, notably for the U.S. Treasury Art Project and the W.P.A. (Works Projects Administration) Art Project. In 1933 Fetiche et Fleurs was exhibited as part of the “Exhibition of the Works of Negro Artists” at the Harmon and won the Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Prize. Numerous other exhibitions followed, including one-man shows at the New Jersey State Museum and another installation at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune.
It was during these productive years that his most controversial creations took shape. “During the late 1930s Hayden developed a ‘consciously naive’ style,” wrote Regenia Perry, “which represented various aspects of African American life.” As Chicago Tribune critic Artner noted, “Hayden’s mature work is represented by paintings with sometimes outrageous caricature,” adding that he “incurred heavy criticism for his vignettes from everyday life, and such are the stereotypes that, if they were done by anyone other than a black, they would not have been tolerated.” The painting Just Back from Washington is a prime example of such representation; it depicts a grinning dandy clutching a cigar in his teeth as a kneeling figure shines his shoes. Both men’s lips are painted in an exaggerated style that suggests minstrelsy.
Such criticism eventually took its toll on the painter, and he revised some of his work under its influence. A prime example is The Janitor Who Paints, one of Hayden’s signature works. First committed to canvas in 1938, it was redone some years later as a noble rendering of a working-class artist in a beret busily limning the portrait of a serene mother and child. On the wall of his humble studio hangs a framed picture of a cat. An x-ray of this version, however, revealed something quite different underneath; Perry described the earlier Janitor painting: “The well-dressed, beret-wearing janitor-artist was originally painted as a ludicrous, bald man with a bean-shaped head; the baby was a grinning buffoon, and the mother was depicted as an unflattering servant. Ironically, the cat in the framed picture was painted over a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.”
Hayden always described the painting in ennobling terms, having noted—in remarks quoted in the NMAA Research Bulletin —that the work was inspired by his friendship with black painter Cloyd Boy kin, who made a living as a janitor. “I painted it because no one called Boykin the artist,” Hayden recalled. “They called him the janitor.” Yet it was clear that the remarks of critics like James Porter had affected his decision to re-work the painting. In this and similar works, Porter wrote, “We see a talent gone astray. Not only are the forms in these works confused, but the application of the humor is ill-advised and altogether tasteless.” Mary Schmidt Campbell asserted some years later in Harlem Renaissance that the painter’s “deliberately self-effacing interpretation of his efforts as an artist, his insistence on portraying blacks with the masks of minstrels—that is, as performers for a White audience—and his ingratiating reference to the benevolence of his liberators, are probably honest, if not particularly ennobling, portrayal as of Hayden’s very real feelings about his efforts at making art.” Yet some critics, such as BookZens Nathan Irvin Huggins, suggested that Hayden “employs racetypes [racial stereotypes] to achieve the tone of satire.”
After 1940, Hayden focused ever more single-mindedly on the black American experience, capturing both rural gatherings in the South and the urban milieu of New York. Midsummer Night in Harlem has often been hailed as the prime example of this phase of his career, though Porter likened it to “one of those ludicrous billboards that once were plastered on public buildings to advertise the blackface minstrels.” David Pagel discussed Hayden’s depiction of “public spaces” in the Los Angeles Times.“Despite the festive nature of these surroundings,” he ventured, “Hayden generally painted them under ominous skies, with the same claustrophobic grimness he brought to pictures of a welfare line, railroad tracks and a barren cornfield presided over by a lonely vulture.” In Pagel’s opinion, “The overwhelming desire to be serious—as an artist and chronicler of his people’s experiences—restricts Hayden’s inventiveness, limiting the playfulness that occasionally enlivens his art. This sort of no-nonsense, even moral, control weakens his images while it strengthens their Americanness.”
Hayden would take up a prototypically American theme in a series of paintings he began in 1944 and over which he labored for a decade. His John Henry; series took on the legend of the black laborer who competes with a steam drill and dies, hammer in hand, after emerging triumphant. The 12 paintings in this series were exhibited constantly in subsequent decades, and stand among Hayden’s most acclaimed work. His work was featured in a number of exhibits during the 1960s, as the Civil Rights and Black Power movements increased interest in and awareness of black artists. The year 1967 saw his work shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art, on loan from the Smithsonian Institution’s permanent collection.
“From the late 1960s until his death in 1973,” wrote Perry, “Hayden continued to paint subjects based on African American themes, but in a more cosmopolitan manner than his earlier works. He also explored non-American themes, presenting a stylized view of Africa in such canvases as 1964’s The Blue Nile.” It was shortly before his death that the painter was awarded a fellowship from New York’s Creative Artist Public Service Program to paint a series celebrating black American soldiers. He passed away before he could create these works.
A number of posthumous exhibits were mounted over the next few years, and interest in Hayden’s work continued to blossom in the ensuing decades. A 1988 exhibit at the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles boasted some 40 Hayden canvases that had previously been in the possession of his widow, Miriam. “The presentation of this exhibition is important to us,” the museum’s acting director Joyce Henderson told the Los Angeles Times,”not only because we’re showing our own collection, but also because we’re assuming the charge of making Palmer’s work and reputation known throughout the country. The pieces in our collection are probably his best.” Hayden’s Janitor appeared as part of the National Museum of American Art’s omnibus exhibit “Free Within Ourselves,” and in 1996, the M. Hanks Gallery in Santa Monica, California, offered a career retrospective. Los Angeles Times critic Pagel commented that the nearly two dozen works in the latter show present “an American picture that is quaint, melancholic and honest.” Whatever the ultimate verdict on Hayden’s powers as an artist, it was clear that his work would continue to stir discussion for some time to come.
Miers, Charles, editor, Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America, Harry N. Abrahams, Inc., 1987.
Porter, James,Modern Negro Art,Arno Press/New York Times, 1969.
American Visions,April 1994, pp. 22-26.
Chicago Tribune, May 15, 1988.
Los Angeles Times, April 10, 1988 (Calendar) p. 97; May 30, 1996, p. F10.NMAA Research Bulletin 1, 1992, p. 1.
Additional information was provided by the BookZen site on the World Wide Web, and by Regenia A. Perry’s essay “Free Within Ourselves: African American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art,” which accompanied the 1992 exhibit.
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