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Defined Art During the Harlem Renaissance

By: Suzanne Benedetto  

“Contrary to the conventional wisdom which would have predicted a pessimistic world view during the Depression, painter Archibald J. Motley Jr. and Palmer C. Hayden saw the world as teeming with life, leisure, and a touch of lowbrow” (Powell 68). 

Harlem Renaissance Intro



Works Cited and Additional Sources

Intro to Harlem Renaissance:

    “Between 1916 and 1940, there occurred an artistic revolution in black America.  It was driven by political and economic circumstances in the United States, world events, and changes in attitudes of African Americans about themselves and of whites about African-Americans” (Haskins 13).  This time period concentrated in Harlem, was called the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a long awaited time for the Black man and woman to showcase his or her talents in the areas of art, music, and literature, all of which contributed to the cultural and political movement made by the once oppressed African-American.  Art created during the Harlem Renaissance especially flourished.  Black artists such as Aaron Douglas, Augusta Savage, as well as Palmer Hayden’s beautiful masterpieces of paintings and sculptures were recognized and valued for the first time.



   1932 painted Jeunesse
Watercolor on paper; illustrated the care-free dance and music inspired lifestyle of the Harlem Renaissane

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Palmer Hayden was born in Widewater, Virginia on January 15, 1890.  As a young man he served in World War I; where he was given the name Palmer Hayden by a Sergeant who was unable to pronounce his birth name, Peyton Hedgemen.  As a young boy he dreamed of playing the fiddle, but due to lack of finances and his timid demeanor he never got to do so.  He did continue to draw though and as an adolescent he moved to Washington D.C. and worked as a porter, errand boy, and drew scenes of the Potomac.  The fishing boats and sailboats he portrayed on the Potomac were subjects and inspirations for many of his most famous paintingClick To Downloads (Hanks 3).  Those paintings would be the source of his success later on.  He joined the army in order to have time and the income to draw; worked as a postman, which allowed little time for art; then decided on becoming a janitor.   He having a less than glamorous job was something that he would continue to be associated with.  In fact when he won a coveted art prize and traveled abroad people said about him: “House cleaner quits scrub bucket job to work abroad”     (VIDEO).                                         Back to top



      “’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”(Hanks 1).  It was the Harmon Center that changed his life.  The William E. Harmon Foundation was established to give disadvantaged African-American artists the chance to properly display their art and possibly make money from it.  Before the Harmon Foundation in Harlem blacks were excluded from galleries and museums leaving them no place to sell or show their works of art (video). With the money he earned from the foundation he traveled to France and Europe to paint professionally.  Europe had always been more accepting to African-Americans than the Americans had been.  Upon his return in 1936 he painted The Janitor Who Paints which was one of the most controversial paintings of the Harlem Renaissance.


“In this symbolic self-portrait, the painter is at work in his basement studio, surrounded by the tools of his dual professions, a palette, brushes and easel, and a garbage can, broom and feather duster” (Palmer Hayden 1).   Ironically, Palmer had been a janitor in the Harmon Center where his work was displayed.  It caused controversy because of its subjects being drawn in a cartoonish manner, exemplifying offensive stereotypes.  “Hayden insisted he was not poking fun at black people or acceding to white stereotypes, but depicting an era, with all the comedy and tragedy of black life.  It was more affectionate” (Haskins 151).  He did redo the painting though making the lips of all subjects thinner and changing a defiled portrait of Abraham Lincoln to one of a cat.  He did not intend to offend anyone , but rather make endearing portraits of his own people.  “Starkly contrasting Bruegel, who depicts the lower class, but doesn’t truly delve into their lives, Hayden brings to the lifestyle the African-American’s public eye, causing the repressed class to be represented in artwork, and thus suggesting that their artwork is linked to the movement towards equality” (Palmer 1).   Back to top




 Works Cited & Additional Resources

Hanks, Eric.  Journey From The Crossroads: Palmer Hayden’s Right Turn. 19 January 2003.

Art In the Harlem Renaissance. Videocassette. A&E Documentary. 

Haskins, Jim.  The Harlem Renaissance.  Brooksfield, Connecticut: The Millbrook Press, 1996.

Palmer Hayden.  19 January 2003.

Palmer Hayden (1890-1973) h/haydp01x.html

Powell, Richard J. Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc,1997.

Gallery of Hayden's Work:


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