Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Palmer Hayden

1890-1973 / Painter

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 a 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.