As one of the premiere artists of the African American folk experience, Palmer Hayden painted ordinary aspects of twentieth-century black life and helped pioneer candid representations of everyday existences in American modern art. While his work has been widely celebrated since the mid-twentieth century, his incorporation of African American folkloric themes and images was more widely debated than celebrated for its novelty. Characterizing his work as black primitivism, his critics denounced Hayden for his use of minstrel-like forms, which they felt played to racist stereotypes of black people. Even so, several of his contemporaries, including Harlem's poet laureate Langston Hughes, disagreed. In the early 2000s, his contemporary supporters joined scores of art critics who celebrate Hayden's work as an invaluable representation of the common American experience.
Hayden was born on January 15, 1890 to John and Nancy Hedgeman in Widewater, Virginia; his given name was Peyton Cole Hedgeman. Growing up on the banks of the Potomac River as one of twelve children, he was inspired by an older brother to begin drawing as a child. Though he also had private dreams of becoming a fiddle player, his family could not afford a fiddle and certainly could not afford fiddle lessons. Hence, he decided to pursue drawing, his true childhood passion in the rumbling town's surrounding countryside.
Educated in public schools, Hayden moved to Washington, D.C. as an adolescent to find work. Working as an errand boy and porter, he spent his spare time sketching boats on the Potomac. Emboldened by his love and natural talent the aspiring artist placed an advertisement in a local newspaper seeking employment as an artist's assistant. When Hayden showed up for an interview with the white artist who responded, the artist turned him down because he was black.
Life as Serviceman and Fledgling Artist
After a series of odd jobs, including a stint as a laborer with the Buffalo Bill Circus (later known as the Ringling Brothers Circus), Hayden enlisted in the U.S. Army's 24th Infantry Regiment, an all-black company in 1914. While there are two different versions of how his name was changed from Peyton C. Hedgeman to Palmer Hayden, both accounts suggest that the name change occurred during his time as a serviceman. In the most popular account, his white commanding officer mispronounced his name, giving him the moniker Palmer Hayden. He used the name from that time forward and legally changed his name nine years later.
In addition to affording an opportunity to earn a decent living, the army also gave Hayden ample time to draw surrounding land- and seascapes. With more time to draw, Hayden began receiving tutorials from his white second lieutenant Arthur Boetscher, who drew maps as a hobby. While he was assigned to the 10th Cavalry at West Point after re-enlisting in 1918, he was not a cadet but was instead assigned as a caretaker of the cadets' training horses. Although it required more than half of his $18 per month salary, Hayden was able to enroll in a correspondence course in drawing for $10 each month.
The Renaissance Artist Paints Seascapes
At the close of the war in 1919, Hayden settled in New York. While working nights at the post office, Hayden studied charcoal drawing at Columbia University. Since the job required too much of his time, he quit the post office to begin part time work as a janitor in a Greenwich Village apartment building. Luckily, the first tenant he assisted was Victor Perard, then instructor at Cooper Institute (later called Cooper Union); Perard hired Hayden as a helper in his studio, while continuing to nurture his artistic talent.
Living in New York, Hayden was in the midst of the artistic, cultural, and social burgeoning of African American literary expression from the 1920s to the early 1930s, referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. Even so, Hayden's training was always more closely related to painting scenery, especially seascapes. In 1925, he began study under Asa Randall at the Boothbay Art Colony in Maine. The association served as a major turning point for Hayden, who demonstrated his increased understanding for the relationship between color and composition in several paintings of Boothbay Harbor.
In another chance meeting while moving furniture as a paid laborer, Hayden met Alice M. Dike, a wealthy daughter of a prominent judge. After explaining to Dike that he was an artist, Dike showed him a brochure from her church advertising the Harmon Foundation Awards for Distinguished Achievement among Negroes. Founded in 1922 by white real estate developer and philanthropist William E. Harmon, the foundation, in conjunction with the Commission on the Church and Race Relations of the Federal Council of Churches, recognized achievement in literature, music, drama, and visual arts.
Early Accolades for a Promising Career
Hayden submitted five of his paintings depicting various water scenes in Portland, Maine, and Haverstraw, New York, to the 1926 contest. Citing his work as unusual for an artist with little training and limited opportunity as handicaps, the foundation awarded Hayden the first place award of $400 and its gold medal in fine arts. Hayden was among a distinguished list of Harlem personalities to be awarded, including black bibliophile Arthur A. Schomburg, poet Countee Cullen, and writer James Weldon Johnson.
The following year, Hayden received a $3,000 gift from Dike, who wished to remain anonymous. Combined with the monetary award he had received, Hayden planned to use Dike's contribution for a two-year art study in Europe, in spite of his precarious financial state.
- Born in Widewater, Virginia on January 15
- Enlists in the U.S. Army's 24th Infantry Regiment, an all-black company; assumes the moniker Palmer Hayden
- Re-enlists and is posted at West Point where he begins a correspondence course in drawing
- Settles in New York at the close of World War II; begins studying at Cooper Institute under the tutelage of Victor Perard
- Enters the Harmon Foundation's contest and is awarded the first place prize of $400 and its Gold Medal in Fine Arts
- Receives $3,000 grant from Alice M. Dike to study art in Europe
- Solo show at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris, France
- Returns to New York City with the financial aid of the American Aid Society of Paris
- Hayden's Fetiche et Fleurs (Fetish and Flowers) is exhibited at the Harmon Show of 1933 as a part of the "Exhibition of the Works of Negro Artists," where it wins the Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Prize
- Briefly lives in Paris, France
- Returns to New York; marries Miriam Huffman
- Begins his John Henry Series
- Dies in Manhattan, New York on February 18
African American Artists Experience Paris
Hayden settled in Paris, among a cadre of other renaissance African American artists, including other Har-mon grant awardees such as Cullen, William H. Johnson, and Lois Mailou (later Jones). "They felt unhindered by the constraints imposed upon their lives in the United States," according to the 1966 Time article. In Paris, "they could study at prestigious academies, exhibit at respected salons, and feel confident that their art would receive serious critical attention." Like other expatriate artists who found training available through a system of ateliers, Hayden began privately working under M. Clivette Le Fevre at the École des Beaux-Arts.
Despite financial constraints, which led him to end his lessons late in 1928, Hayden showed at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery. As a solo show, the exhibit should have served as a major achievement but was marred by the disapproval of Le Fevre. As Hayden's former teacher, an angry Le Fevre felt that he was not prepared. The two men never saw each other again.
While in Paris, Hayden socialized in the circle of Harlem Renaissance artists, artisans and activists, including Alain Locke, an African American philosopher and writer. Locke, who had long-called for black artists to incorporate more African themes in their art, was among a group of Harlem personalities who either teased Hayden for his primary use of seascapes in his paintings or chastised him for his choice of black imagery.
With funds borrowed from the American Aid Society of Paris, Hayden returned to New York City in 1932, after five years abroad. Soon, he began work with the Works Progress Administration, during which time he mostly painted buildings and landscapes of New York City.
At the Helm of the "Africanist" Movement
Painted sometime between 1926 and 1932, Hayden's Fetiche et Fleurs (Fetish and Flowers) was exhibited at the Harmon Show of 1933 as a part of the "Exhibition of the Works of Negro Artists." The small still-life composition of a vase of lilies, an ashtray, and a Gabonese Fang head on a table covered with a Kuba textile from Zaire, clearly linked Hayden with the African-Cubist tradition of Harlem and Paris. As one of the earliest works by an African American artist to incorporate actual African imagery, the painting won the coveted Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Prize.
The 1930s proved to be the decade of Hayden's most productive and most controversial work. Having moved away from depicting the land and seascapes for which other Harlem artists teased him, Hayden sought to capture the folk culture of Harlem and the wider black American experience from his vantage point. Impressed by the black character of his newer paintings, Locke described Hayden's new style in Negro Art: Past and Present as "more modernistic … more decorative, high-keyed and in broken color."
Hayden moved briefly to Paris in 1936, but he returned to New York where he married Miriam Huffman in 1937. Throughout the 1930s Hayden exhibited his work at various shows throughout New York, including the Independent Artists in New York, Cooperative Art Market, Commodore Hotel, and the Nicholas Roerich Museum as well as the Smithsonian Institution and Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Colonial Exposition in Paris.
Protest in the Midst of Controversy
Hayden began one of his most noted and most contentious paintings, The Janitor Who Paints, in 1939–40. The composition depicts a black janitor busily working on a portrait of an attractive woman and a small child. The artist's studio is actually a bedroom, furnished with bed, nightstand, and alarm clock with a modest portrait of a cat on its wall. While the humble nature of the apartment suggests that the green beret-wearing artist is working-class, the rendering conveys the dignity with which he pursues his art.
An x-ray of the canvas reveals an earlier version of the composition in which all three figures have enlarged lips. The janitor's beret and hair are absent and his head is bald and cone-shaped. His hands are noticeably large and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln hangs in the background. Many critics gave this version scathing criticism, charging that Hayden's employment of minstrel-like features was stereotypical and re-enforced the use of racist images in art.
While Hayden altered the painting in response to mounting criticism, he would later defend the earlier rending as a "protest painting." In a 1969 interview, Hayden cited his friendship with Cloyd Boykin, an older African American painter who supported himself as a janitor, as its source of protest. "I painted it because no one called Boykin the artist," said Hayden. "They called him the janitor."
The Janitor Who Paints was only one of several paintings in which Hayden drew on themes that resonated from his own life. Hayden portrayed his childhood dilemma—the fiddle or his love of drawing—in an oil painting titled Midnight at the Crossroads (1940). Similarly, the painting Michie Stadium represents a time in Hayden's life. Recalling his time as a serviceman at West Point, it depicts cadets filing into the stadium to watch a football game while a single black person looks on from his perch up in a nearby tree. Critics would ridicule Hayden's Midsummer Night in Harlem (1936) for its flat forms and stylized figures; nevertheless, later art critics heralded the painting for evoking the mood of Harlem's residents congregating outside to escape the heat inside the tenements.
Hayden insisted that he was not striving for satirical effects in his African American folk paintings but that he wanted to achieve a new type of expression. In a February 1947 interview with Nora Holt, Hayden explained, "I decided to paint to support my love of art, rather than have art support me."
In 1944, Hayden began a three-year effort to create the John Henry series, which became his most famous group of paintings. Drawing heavily on his childhood remembrances of the "steel drivin' man," Hayden sought to create images of the African American folk hero. His twelve-part series, based on the true story of John Henry as a strong man who used a hammer to create railroads and hammer tunnels through mountains, was hailed for successfully capturing the soul, the spirit, and the strength of a hero as no artist had done before.
Hayden continued to paint throughout his life, returning often to the land and seascapes with which he began. Just two weeks after being awarded a grant from the Creative Arts Project to complete a series of twelve paintings about an African American solider from World War I to World War II, Hayden died on February 18, 1973, in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Manhattan, New York. He was 83.
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Crystal A. deGregory