Palmer Hayden

Hayden depicted the energy of dancers in his painting Jeunesse. Discover the role of dancing during the Harlem Renaissance in Lindy Hop in Harlem.


Palmer Hayden (1890-1973)




The Kennedy Center
Marco Polo
This resource was created in March 2003 by ARTSEDGE. All rights reserved.
ARTSEDGE is a project of the Education Department of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts,
and is a member of the MarcoPolo Partnership
View Hayden's painting, Midsummer Night in Harlem.

Gifted at both oils and watercolors, Palmer Hayden became a well-known Harlem artist and folklorist. Most of his early paintings were landscapes. In 1926, the Harmon Foundation awarded first prize to a Maine seascape of Hayden's creation.

With the backing of wealthy art patron, Hayden moved to Paris in 1927 and studied there for the next five years. It was a richly productive period for the painter, as evidenced by the stack of sketchbooks he brought home in 1932 that vividly capture Parisian society. Hayden went to work that year for the U.S. Treasury Art Project and the Depression-era government-funded Works Progress Administration (WPA). His work began to concern itself with scenes of daily life in Harlem.

Tapping memories of his childhood in Wide Water, Virginia, Hayden also brought to life the manners and mores of small-town residents. The most striking product of his work from this period is Hayden's John Henry series: These 12 paintings, which took the painter more than a decade to complete, depict the life of the indomitable black "steel-drivin' man" who helped lay railroad ties and tracks crisscrossing the South.

Hayden's work won kudos for its artistic merit, but some critics accused it of perpetuating racial stereotypes. His portrayal of African Americans with exaggerated features and minstrel-style grins may have been a product of the times, but they remain highly controversial details today.


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Like Aaron Douglas, Hayden used various African art styles in his paintings.
Alain Locke praised Hayden for his modernist approach.
In common with Augusta Savage, he studied at Cooper Union art school.
Hayden won a Harmon Foundation competition in 1933.
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