International Review Of African American Art Volume 16 Number 1, pp. 30-42.

Journey From The Crossroads: Palmer Hayden's Right Turn

By Eric Hanks

"Negro Worker Wins Harmon Art Prizes: Gold Medal and $400 Awarded to Man Who Washes Windows to Have Time to Paint," read a New York Times headline, January 2, 1927. Palmer Hayden, a self-effacing, 36-year-old* janitor and army veteran, won first prize for Distinguished Achievement in Fine Arts in the Harmon Foundation's first-ever awards ceremony. He entered five paintings–three seascapes and two landscapes. One of the seascapes, Schooners,won the prize.

Palmer Hayden
Schooners
ca. 1926, oil on canvas
Location Unknown: Photo National Archives

*He told everyone he was 33 years old and the Times article said he was 29.

Consciously or not, the Harmon Foundation, and the Commission on Race Relations of the Federal Council of Churches which administered the foundation's awards program, made a dramatic statement by selecting Hayden as the gold medal winner. His being a janitor with artistic talent but little formal training emphasized the limited opportunities available to black people at this time. It also stressed the importance of the Harmon Foundation as a champion of poor and disadvantaged African Americans.

The award also launched launched Hayden's extraordinary career as an artist. He went on to create a large body of work consisting mostly of oil and watercolor paintings but also including some pen and ink drawings. While his subject matter varied most art historians and writers agree that his most significant work are his genre paintings that tell African American folk tales. His John Henry series is perhaps the best example of his work in this area. It should be noted, however, that some of his representations of African Americans were denounced by some critics as stereotypical and demeaning. In some cases he was accused of pandering to white racist appetites for distorted imagery of black people.

Palmer Hayden hanging a portrait of the Japanese emperor at show in Washington Square, 1934. Photo National Archives

Hayden's reputation as an African American folklorist, however, overshadows his undying love of seascapes and river scenes. Marine scenes and docks reminded him of home and sometimes carried a religious significance. Harbor scenes took him back to Boothbay Harbor, Maine, which he said was a milestone in his development as an artist.

Palmer Hayden's name at birth was Peyton Hedgeman. He was born January 15, 1890 in Widewater, Virginia, a small town on the banks of the Potomac river, about 40 miles south of Washington, DC. He was one of twelve children. (It's also written that he was one of 10 children and one of 13 children).

Inspired by his older brother who liked to draw, Hayden started drawing as a small child. He mostly made sketches of the surrounding countryside. He told a reporter sometime later that during this time he also began drawing pictures of his hero, John Henry, the steel driving man.

But he also had a secret dream of becoming a fiddle player.* He told art historian Harry Henderson that he regretted all of his life not pursuing his dream . (See Bearden and Henderson, A History of African American Artists: 1792 to the Present). He said two things prevented him from learning to play the fiddle: his family couldn't afford lessons or a fiddle, and he was too timid to follow his dream.

*During Hayden's childhood, fiddle playing was regarded unfavorably by many church-going folks. However, playing the violin in an orchestra, for example, was held in higher esteem. Here are some lines from a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar that illustrate why the pious viewed fiddling as raucous. "He's a fiddlah, now I tell you, an' he made dat fiddle ring.../'Bless yo' soul, dat music winged 'em an' dem people lak to flew/Cripple Joe, de old rheumatic, danced dat flo' f'om side to middle/Th'owed away his crutch an' hopped it; what's rheumatics 'ginst a fiddle?" (from "The Party" in Dunbar's Lyrics of Lowly Life, 1905)

The conflict between his desire to play the fiddle and his love of drawing is portrayed in an oil painting titled Midnight at the Crossroads. The painting shows a young Palmer Hayden standing at a crossroads holding a fiddle and a bow. The road to the left has a bat flying over it and represents the path to becoming a musician. The road on the right has a church next to it and represents the way to becoming a painter. While the boy hasn't proceeded down either road he's facing the one on the left. The entire scene is cast in moonlight, Hayden said, to convey the secret quality of his wish.

Palmer Hayden
Midnight at the Crossroads
oil on canvas, 28" x 34"
© Miriam Hayden Estate
Courtesy M. Hanks Gallery, Santa Monica, CA
Collection Robert and Faye Davidson

This painting suggests a reason for Hayden's timidity in pursuing his dream of becoming a fiddle player. He associated playing the instrument with evil. Bats, symbols of evil and sometimes called birds of the Devil, await him along the road to becoming a fiddle player. In contrast, the church suggests that good things await him on the road to becoming a painter.

When Hayden reached adolescence he moved to Washington, DC to find work. He became an errand boy and porter. During this time he drew fishing boats and sailboats on the Potomac. He also came face-to-face with racism when he tried, for the first time, to pursue a career as an artist. He placed an ad in a local newspaper seeking employment as an artist's assistant. A white artist responded. But when Hayden showed up for an interview the artist said he couldn't hire him because he was black.

Later, he became a laborer with the Buffalo Bill Circus, then the Ringling Brothers Circus. He continued drawing in his spare time.

After a brief stint with the circus, he joined the army's all-black Company A, 24th Infantry Regiment. It was at this time that his named changed from Peyton C. Hedgeman to Palmer C. Hayden. There are two slightly different accounts as to how this happened.

According to A History of African American Artists: 1792 to the Present, the timekeeper at his last job wrote a letter of reference and mistakenly put down his name as Palmer Hayden. Hayden was too afraid to ask him to write another letter so he presented himself to the army recruiter as Palmer Hayden. In Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America, David Driskell said his white commanding sergeant gave him the name by mispronouncing his real name. In any case, he called himself Palmer Hayden from this time forward and legally changed his name around nine years later.

He joined the army, he said, because he could earn a living and have plenty of time to draw: "I always heard that army men had a lazy time of it. In that case I thought I would have plenty of time to draw." Along with more time to draw, he also received some art lessons. His white second lieutenant, Arthur Boetscher, whose hobby was map drawing, became his tutor.

After four years Hayden re-enlisted and was assigned to the 10th Calvary at West Point. He was not a cadet. His primary responsibility was taking care of the horses the cadets used to learn to ride on. He also enrolled in a correspondence drawing course at this time, spending $10 per month on tuition, out of his $18 per month salary.

Michie Stadium is a painting that recalls his time at West Point. In it cadets are filing into the stadium to watch a football game while a lone black person looks on from up in a tree. Some say this is Hayden. The background is covered with the colors of fall. The clearly visible fish in the lake in the foreground gives this painting a naïve quality. It's paintings like this one, in contrast to other works, like his seascapes, that make it difficult for critics to place him neatly in any single category.

Palmer Hayden
Michie Stadium
oil on canvas, 24" x 34"
© Miriam Hayden Estate
Courtesy M. Hanks Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

After leaving the army Hayden studied charcoal drawing at Columbia University while working nights at the post office. Post office work took up too much of his time, he said, so he quit and started working part time as a janitor at an apartment building in New York City. As it turned out, the first tenant he assisted was Victor Perard, an art instructor at Cooper Union, then called Cooper Institute. He hired Hayden to clean his studio and encouraged him to develop his art.

Later, a cook at an art colony in Boothbay Harbor Maine, suggested to Hayden that he contact Asa Randall, an art instructor there. He did. Hayden recalled later that that was a major turning point for him. Under Randall's tutelage he "began to realize things, to make better connections about everything," and to understand relationships in composition and color.

Hayden painted several pictures of Boothbay Harbor. Boothbay East #1 shows his developing sense of perspective and composition. Carousel Wharf, Boothbay Harbor demonstrates his use of a more open palette, including red and deeper blue-greens.

Palmer Hayden
Carousel Wharf, Boothbay Harbor
watercolor, 12" x 16"
© Miriam Hayden Estate
Courtesy M. Hanks Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

Another major turning point in Hayden's career came when he met Alice M. Dike, a wealthy daughter of a prominent judge. After moving furniture for her as a paid laborer he explained that he was an artist. She showed him a brochure from her church advertising the Harmon Foundation Awards for Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes. Organized by white philanthropist William E. Harmon, the Foundation recognized achievement in literature, music, drama and the visual arts.

Hayden entered and won first prize. But that was not the only help Dike provided him. She also gave him $3,000 to help pay for his trip to Paris, France to study art.

Shortly after winning the Harmon award Hayden, 37 years old, departed for France with his $400 prize money from the Harmon Foundation, another $100 in savings and the $3,000 gift from Dike. He told one reporter, just before he left, that he was going to spend time in art school in Paris and visit the art centers of Italy, Spain, England, and Germany.

About a year later, though, he was broke and asking for more money from the Harmon Foundation. Mary Beattie Brady, the director, rejected his request and scolded him for squandering his funds and not finding employment. "I am wondering if your assistance that came about through the recognition of the Harmon Foundation has not in your case proved more of a hindrance than a help," she said.

He didn't attend art school in Paris but he studied for a while under an artist named Clivette Le Fevre. The art lessons ended in late 1928, however, after Hayden had a one-man show at a local gallery. Le Fevre felt Hayden wasn't ready for an exhibition and became very upset. They never saw each other again.

While he was in Paris Hayden socialized with a coterie of African American artists and writers. Some, like Countee Cullen and Hale Woodruff, were fellow Harmon award winners. They often met at the art studio of sculptor Augusta Savage. They all teased him about making so many seascape paintings.

He also traveled to Brittany, a west coast province of France. He was fond of painting scenes of Concarneau, a small fishing village there. Le Quai á Port Louis is a port scene there while Concarneau-Andrée de la Mer shows a typical day in the life of the local fishermen.

Palmer Hayden
Concarneau-Andree de la Mer
watercolor, 21" x 28 1/2"
© Miriam Hayden Estate
Courtesy M. Hanks Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

In Concarneau-Andrée de la Mer the fishermen are unloading the day's catch and putting it on a truck as two women and a small child, all standing, look on from the edge of the pier. An old man sits on a bench next to the women and child. A dog with his tongue hanging out is also watching from his position near the working fisherman. All of the figures are in their native clothing, including, in some cases, wooden shoes called sabot, which is most often associated with the Dutch.

Another thing Hayden did while he was in France was attend museum shows at the Louvre and elsewhere. He said he learned a lot from those visits.

While he was in France, he met the great philosopher and writer, Alain Locke. Locke showed him African art he obtained on a trip to Africa. This experience, along with Locke's call for artists to look to African art for inspiration and design ideas, led to Fetiche et Fleurs a still life oil painting of an African mask and fabric. While Hayden admired African Art, he also said it had "no meaning to us Americans." He was, however, attracted to other aspects of Africa.

Palmer Hayden
Fetiche et Fleurs
1932-33
oil on canvas, 24" x 34"
Collection Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles

According to Samella Lewis, Hayden attended an exhibition in Paris called the Colonial Exposition and was inspired by what he saw there. Part of what he saw were scenes of Northern Africa. He created a series of paintings about them, including African Village, a North African village executed in earth-toned watercolor, and African Street Scene, rendered with a darker palette in oil.

Palmer Hayden
African Village
1932, watercolor, 9" x 11 1/2"
© Miriam Hayden Estate
Courtesy M. Hanks Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

Palmer Hayden
African Street Scene
1932, oil on canvas, 13" x 18"
© Miriam Hayden Estate
Courtesy M. Hanks Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

On August 11, 1932, after five years of being abroad and with funds borrowed from the American Aid Society of Paris, Hayden returned to New York City. Not long after arriving he became a WPA (Works Progress Administration) artist with a salary of about $30 per week. He painted mostly buildings and landscapes of New York City during this time. But in his spare time he continued to follow his own creative impulses.

For example, in 1935, despite his shyness, Hayden decided to make a political statement with The Execution of NIRA, a pen and ink drawing. NIRA is an acronym for National Industrial Relations Act, one of several pieces of New Deal legislation sent to Congress by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1935 the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional. The drawing is Hayden's interpretation of that decision.

Palmer Hayden
The Execution of NIRA
1935, pen & ink on paper, 21" x 26"
© Miriam Hayden Estate
Courtesy M. Hanks Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

The drawing depicts NIRA as a blindfolded buzzard with his tongue hanging out, as opposed to the strong eagle that was part of the New Deal logo. To strongly emphasize the negative effects of the court's action, Hayden placed a broken arrow and a loose gear wheel on the ground in front of the bird. The Supreme Court justices, wearing mortar boards, perhaps symbolizing their learnedness, are aiming their rifles at NIRA, about to kill him. All of this takes place as the Pilgrims look on. The Capital building is in the background.

This protest work is out of character for Hayden. He rarely made such statements with his art. A short time later, however, he created a work that he characterized as a protest painting but others regarded as demeaning and stereotypical.

The Janitor Who Paints (first version) shows a janitor painting a portrait of a woman and a small child. All three have thick lips. The janitor has a bald head that comes to a point. His hands are very large, perhaps indicating he works with his hands. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln hangs in the background.

Palmer Hayden
The Janitor Who Paints (first version}
ca. 1939-40
oil on canvas
39 1/8" x 32" Collection National Museum of American Art

This painting prompted the following comment from James Porter in his book, Modern Negro Art: "Lately...[Palmer Hayden] has tried to paint satirical pictures of Negro life in Harlem, and in these, including the one entitled The Janitor Who Paints, we see a talent gone far astray. Not only are the forms confused, but the application of the humor is ill-advised if not altogether tasteless." Not everyone agreed with Porter, though. Alain Locke included the painting in his book The Negro in Art. While he didn't comment on it directly, he said Hayden was part of a vanguard of younger artists who were inspired by the New Negro movement "and its crusade of folk expression in all the arts."

Nevertheless, Hayden changed the painting. In the revised version, he made the lips thinner on all three subjects. He put hair and a beret on the head of the janitor. He also changed the portrait of Lincoln to one of a cat.

Palmer Hayden
The Janitor Who Paints (second version}
ca. 1939-40
oil on canvas
39 1/8" x 32" Collection National Museum of American Art

The Janitor Who Paints was described by scholars sometime later as autobiographical because Hayden was, at one time, a janitor. But one thing about the painting itself suggests otherwise. The janitor in the painting is right handed while Hayden is left handed. In an interview with Harry Henderson (quoted in A History of African American Artists: 1792 to the Present) Hayden said the painting is of a friend named Cloyd L. Boykin. He went on to say that the painting was a "sort of protest painting," because nobody called Boykin an artist–they only called him a janitor.

Hayden returned briefly to Paris in 1936. It's believed that while he was there he painted The Seine at St. Cloud. This scene was attractive to him not only because of its beauty but also because it reminded him of home. Railroad tracks run along the side of the river, just like they do in his hometown, Widewater, Virginia. In fact, it was the construction of the railroad next to the Potomac that attracted many, including Hayden's ancestors, to Widewater.

Palmer Hayden
The Seine at St. Cloud
oil on canvas mounted on board, 20" x 25"
© Miriam Hayden Estate
Courtesy M. Hanks Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

By 1937 he was back in New York. Three years later, at age 50, he married Miriam Huffman, his first and only wife.

In 1944 he embarked on what became a three-year effort to create his most famous group of paintings, the John Henry series. The idea, however, stemmed from his childhood when he heard his father and others sing the ballad of the "steel drivin' man" and when he first made sketches of his hero.

His efforts to make the series were helped when his wife found a book titled John Henry: A Folklore Story by Louis W. Chappell which indicated the story of John Henry was based on a real person by that name. Hayden corresponded with Chappell. Chappell, an instructor at West Virginia University, answered Hayden's questions and, in a letter, urged him to make John Henry's woman a red head. He said, "I hope she will look like something fit to go home to when the day's work is over and the night's work is ready to begin, and such a woman is not altogether a matter of clothes."

He also stressed the importance of John Henry's hammer. "I have an idea that Henry's hammer might well create a number of problems for the painter," he told him. "I have yet to see a picture of Henry holding his hammer in his hands, or swinging it in driving steel, that has the slightest touch of reality in it."

Hayden heeded Chappell's urgings. The Dress She Wore Was Blue depicts a woman with red hair that probably satisfies the request to make Henry's woman "fit to go home to", while Hammer in His Hand shows John Henry holding his hammer in a realistic way.

The John Henry series was exhibited at the Argent Gallery in New York City, January 20 to February 1, 1947. A New York Times reviewer said "...the story of John Henry is unfolded in a dozen oils by Palmer Hayden, who has captured something of the combined literalness and imaginative quality in Negro spirituals in these paintings of that 'steel-drivin' man from childhood to his fatal competition with a steam drill….The artist has found and utilized illustratively the picturesque material in the saga of the black Paul Bunyan."

Hale Woodruff wrote in the guest book for the show, "very good, Palmer!"

Hayden later said in an interview that Henry was "a powerful and popular working man who belonged to my section of the country and to my race." He also related to him because Henry was so much like the men he grew up with. And, in The Seine at St. Cloud, the two symbols of Hayden's hometown, the railroad and the river, appear in There Lies That Steel Drivin' Man.

Palmer Hayden
There Lies That Steel Drivin' Man
1944-47, oil on canvas, 30" x 40"
Collection Museum of African American Art

Hayden continued to paint both seascapes and scenes of African American life right to the time of his death. For example, in the 1960s he returned to France and painted the same fishing village in Brittany he painted 30 to 40 years ago. Concarneu's New Look is one such painting. In 1970 he painted The Sessionwhich shows several persons in afros and period clothing crowding around a piano player.

Palmer Hayden
Concarneau's New Look
1960, watercolor, 15" x 22"
© Miriam Hayden Estate
Courtesy M. Hanks Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

Palmer Hayden
The Session
ca. 1970, oil on canvas, 27" x 33"
© Miriam Hayden Estate
Courtesy M. Hanks Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

He also spoke out, during this time, against unfair treatment of blacks and Latinos. In 1966, he wrote a letter to William Booth, Chairman of the City Commission on Human Rights, regarding a successful referendum to abolish the New York City Civilian Police Review Board. He told Booth, "I suppose, like most Negro Americans who reside in the city of New York, I was disheartened to witness such an outpouring of hate votes as was demonstrated in the last election involving the referendum on the New York City Civilian Police review Board." He went on to say that he felt a new board should include an equal number of Blacks, Puerto Ricans and whites. "This seems to me", he said, "to be a simple and satisfactory manner of assuring the shabbily treated minorities that they can get a fair deal when and if they become involved with the law."

Palmer Hayden died February 18, 1973, just two weeks after being awarded a grant from the Creative Arts Project to complete a series of 12 paintings about the Negro soldier from World War I to World War II.

Palmer Hayden
Parisian Landscape
1928, oil on canvas
Countee Cullen Art Collection
Museum Acquisition Fund
Hampton University Museum

Palmer Hayden
Baptizing Day
1945, oil on canvas, 28" x 35"
Collection Museum of African American Art

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