Palmer Hayden

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Palmer Hayden
Judging a scene he is painting (early 1930s).
Born Peyton Cole Hedgeman
(1890-01-15)January 15, 1890
Died February 18, 1973(1973-02-18) (aged 83)
Nationality American
Known for Painting

Palmer C. Hayden (January 15, 1890 – February 18, 1973) was an American painter who depicted African-American life. He painted in both oils and watercolors, and was a prolific artist of his era.

Early life[edit]

Born on January 15, 1890, Hayden was originally called Peyton Cole Hedgeman. He was given the name Palmer Hayden by his commanding sergeant during World War I. He grew up in the town of Widewater, Virginia, and was a self-trained artist.[1] Hayden was one of the first in America to depict African subjects in his paintings.

Hayden began to draw as a small child, and was inspired to start drawing by his older brother. He enjoyed drawing landscapes of the surrounding countryside. Hayden had a dream of becoming a fiddle player, and told art historian Harry Henderson that he regretted all of his life not pursuing this dream. His family could not afford a fiddle, and he was simply too timid to follow his dream. Midnight at the Crossroads is an oil painting that reflects Hayden’s harsh conflict between becoming a painter and becoming a fiddle player.[2]

Hayden moved to Washington DC to find work when he reached adolescence. He became an errand boy and porter. He started to draw fishing and sailboats, which he was around constantly during his workday. When he started to pursue an art career, he ran into his first encounters with racism. Hayden placed an ad in the local paper for an artist’s assistant, but was rejected when he showed up for the interview because he was black.[3]

Hayden Later became a laborer for the Buffalo Bill Circus, then the Ringling Brothers Circus. Afterwards, he joined the army’s black Company a, 24th Infantry regiment, and was stationed in the Philippines.[2] He later worked as a deliveryman at West Point Academy during WW1. He moved to Greenwich Village after he was discharged to pursue a career in fine arts. While pursuing his slowly growing art career, he worked as a postal clerk, janitor, and a variety of other part-time jobs. In 1925 and 1926, Hayden’s work appeared at the Society of Independent Artists and his very first solo show was in April 1926 at the Civic Club. In 1937, Hayden created The Janitor Who Paints. Despite his artistic success and popularity in Europe, Hayden was still attacked by the press for his early life as a janitor who had little to no artistic training: "...for years, Palmer C. Hayden, a negro, has been cleaning houses and washing windows to make a living, and during his spare time has gone back to his room at 29 Greenwich Avenue to dabble in oil colors and paint coast and river scenes that appealed to him. Yesterday he received the first prize in fine arts from the Harmon Foundation…. He painted for the fun of it and not because he hoped to win any great appreciation of his efforts."[4]

As a young man, Hayden studied at the Cooper Union in New York City and also practiced independent studies at Boothbay Art Colony in Maine. [2] When Hayden was aged 36, he won $400 and a gold medal for his painting Schooners. He submitted five paintings total to the Harmon Arts Foundation. A New York Times headline reads, “Negro Worker Wins Harmon Art Prizes: Gold Medal and $400 Awarded to Man who Washes Windows to Have Time to Paint”.[5] The Harmon Foundation and the commission on race relations of the federal council of churches, which was in charge of the foundation’s awards program was making a rather dramatic statement by selecting Hayden’s work for the award. The fact that such an award was given to a janitor with very little formal training emphasized how limited the opportunities were for a black man at the time. Also, the award launched his career as an artist.[2]

Palmer Hayden demonstration at Lincoln School - NARA - 559160.jpg


Much of Hayden's influences came from the environment around him. He enjoyed painting, and used his time in Paris for inspiration. Over his next five years in Paris, Hayden was very productive, trying to capture elements of Parisian society. On his return to America, Hayden began working for the United States government. His body of work mostly consists of oil and watercolor paintings, but also includes pen/ink drawings. Most art historians agree that his most influential or well-known works would be the ones which reflect African-American folklore. One of the best examples of this is his series of paintings called John Henry. Some people denounced his works as stereotypical and demeaning. Although Hayden is best known for his African folklorist artwork, his love for land and seascapes is overpowering. Many of his landscape paintings carry a nostalgic/religious significance.[6]

Much of Hayden’s work after Paris focused on the African-American experience. He tried to capture rural life as well as urban backgrounds in New York City. Many of these urban paintings were centered in Harlem.

Hayden continued to make contributions to the artistic community until his death on February 18, 1973.


  1. ^ [1][dead link]
  2. ^ a b c Hanks, Eric, "Journey From the Crossroads: Palmer Hayden’s Right Turn" (2002), International Review of African American Art, Volume 16, Number 1, pp. 30-42.
  3. ^ Ott, John, "Labored Stereotypes: Palmer Hayden's The Janitor Who Paints", American Art, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring 2008), p. 103.
  4. ^ NY Times review of the 1926 Exhibition.
  5. ^ "Palmer Hayden", African American World.
  6. ^ Hanks, Eric, "Journey From The Crossroads: Palmer Hayden's Right Turn".


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