Palmer Hayden was a prolific painter who sought to portray the African American experience, capturing both rural life in the American South as well as the bustling pace of New York City. In their documentation of ordinary activities—those associated with family, church, work, and recreation— Hayden’s works are often characterized by their narrative breadth and illustrative qualities. His mastery of watercolor resulted in impressionistic seascapes, river scenes, and landscapes throughout his career. 

Born in Widewater, Virginia, Peyton Cole Hedgeman was one of twelve children born to James and Nancy Hedgeman. Inspired by his artistically-inclined older brother, he began drawing as a small child, eagerly sketching the surrounding countryside and copying images of the African American folk hero, John Henry. The artist’s infatuation with the legend of Henry,—a “steel-driving man” and the subject of classic folk songs, stories, books, and plays—would eventually inform his iconic series, Ballad of John Henry, a group of twelve paintings executed between 1944 and 1947.

Hayden documented the world around him even when his life was in a state of constant flux. Around the age of sixteen, he relocated to Washington, DC, and worked as an errand boy and porter, before joining the famous Ringling Brothers Circus as a roustabout. At night, Hayden would capture the circus animals and performers on paper, a pastime which led to his being assigned to produce promotional posters, cards, and various graphics.

After moving to New York in 1912, Hayden enlisted in the United States Army. During his first of three enlistments, he continued to draw in both a professional and recreational capacity, finding a map drawing tutor in his second lieutenant. In his second tour of duty, Hayden was assigned to the Tenth Cavalry at West Point, where he cared for and trained horses. Around this time, he undertook his first formal artistic training in the form of an army correspondence drawing course, on which he spent ten of his eighteen-dollars-per-month salary. Palmer’s name change reportedly occurred during his army days: when a commanding sergeant mispronounced “Peyton Hedgeman,” the young soldier decided it best not to correct him. However, another account concludes that the derivation was simply the result of a clerical error. In either case, Hayden legally adopted the new name shortly thereafter.

At the conclusion of his military service, Hayden began taking charcoal drawing courses at Columbia University in New York while working as a mail clerk and a janitor. Later, he studied at the Cooper Union and, for two summers, held a working fellowship at the Commonwealth Art Colony in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. There, under the tutelage of Asa Randall, Hayden painted some of his first waterfront scenes—a subject he would pursue throughout his life. Hayden held various odd jobs during the late 1920s, but it was an auspicious furniture-moving gig that propelled him into the next stage of his artistic career. After rearranging household furniture for Alice M. Dike, he was given a brochure advertising a competition sponsored by the newly-established Harmon Foundation, an organization that aimed to recognize the achievements of black artists in literature, music, drama, and the visual arts. In 1926, Hayden was awarded four-hundred dollars upon winning the foundation’s inaugural first prize for a seascape titled Schooners. In support of his promising talent, Dike gifted Hayden three-thousand dollars to underwrite his studies in Europe. The thirty-seven-year-old artist left for Paris in 1927. Hayden later recalled that at that point in his life, “Fate or Luck prepared the way for serious study and application of art.”

During his five years abroad, Hayden connected with some of the twentieth century’s most acclaimed artists, including Hale Woodruff and Henry Ossawa Tanner, as well as the esteemed philosopher Alain Locke. Within a year of his arrival, Hayden had distinguished himself, earning a solo exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris in November 1927. He also participated in group shows at the Salon des Tuileries in 1930 and the American Legion Exhibition in 1931.

While in Paris, Hayden was often teased by his fellow artist friends—including Woodruff and Augusta Savage—about his penchant for waterscapes. Hayden’s undated painting South Ferry is one of many seascapes he produced throughout his long career, finding inspiration not only in the docks of Maine, but also the busy industrial ports in France.

When he returned to the United States in 1932, Hayden worked as an artist for the Works Progress Administration. In 1937, he created The Janitor Who Paints, one of his most well-known works. Despite his training and awards, the American press and art market were often disparaging of Hayden’s part-time employment as a janitor and undermined his success by describing him as a “dabbler” and “hobbyist” rather than a fine artist. Hayden remarked that The Janitor Who Paints served as a “protest painting,” illustrating not only his personal struggles but those of the African American community at large.

Hayden’s return to the United States marked a shift in his approach to art and art making. “I soon discovered that the profession of a painter is not too lucrative, and I decided to paint to support my love of art, rather than have art support me,” he said. That passion led to Hayden’s representation in major museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Museum of African American Art, among others.