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
Like Aaron Douglas, Hayden used various African art styles in his paintings.