BAIA BITS: The Janitor Who Paints, Palmer Hayden


Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art


The Janitor Who Paints, ca. 1930, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.57.28


The Janitor Who Paints is a 1930 oil on canvas painting by Palmer Hayden. In this subtle yet poignant piece, an African American artist paints on a partially hidden canvas what is presumably the profile of a lady and baby sitting nearby. The surrounding quarters are cramped; the artist is flanked  by a trash can, feather duster, and broom. 

Hayden’s compelling painting, for decades, raised questions.  Is  the subject an amateur painting portraits of his family and friends in his spare time at home? Or, more likely, is he a professional artist forced to support himself as a janitor, with Hayden posing a social critique of the relative lack of value placed upon human creativity? Or, even more likely, the relative lack of value placed upon Black creativity?

The latter makes sense given Hayden was known for his paintings of African American life, particularly his narrative scenes of New York’s urbanity and the rural South. He captured everyday people in their daily routines, often when the subjects were unguarded or in humorous or somewhat compromised positions. 

Born Peyton Cole Hedgeman on January 15, 1890 in Widewater, Virginia, Hayden later changed his name to Palmer Hayden, the signature on all of his works. Though he began drawing as a child, his first formal training did not come until he enrolled in a drawing course while enlisted in the army during World War I. After attending West Point and spending time in the Philippines, Hayden was discharged and moved to New York where he worked part-time while studying art at the Cooper Union School of Art. 

In 1925, Hayden traveled to Maine to study painting at the Boothbay Art Colony upon winning a fellowship. The pieces he produced there, mostly of boats and marine subjects, were exhibited a year later back in New York at the Civic Club, winning two Harmon Foundation top awards. With his prize money and help from a patron, Hayden traveled to Paris in 1927 to study at the École des Beaux Arts and exhibit his paintings of African-American life. Five years later, he returned to work on the United States Treasury Art Project and the Works Progress Administration Art Project, producing scenes of the New York waterfront and local citizens.

In the 1940s and 50s, Hayden produced the Ballad of John Henry series, a well-received group of 12 paintings depicting the life of the African-American folk hero. He would continue to exhibit his portrayals of African-American life at a variety of venues in New York and beyond until his death in 1973. 

But four years prior to his passing, in a 1969 interview, Hayden answered decades of questions by characterizing his 1930 work, The Janitor Who Paints, as ​“a sort of protest painting” regarding both his own situation as a struggling artist and that of his African Americans peers. He acknowledged that a friend and fellow artist, Cloyd Boykin, had supported himself as a janitor and further inspired the piece. ​

Hayden explained it in the following fashion.

“I painted it because no one called Boykin ‘the artist.’ They called him ‘the janitor.”

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