Palmer Hayden’s The Janitor Who Paints

Artist Palmer Hayden’s The Janitor Who Paints features the common theme of an artist in his studio, but in 1969, he described this painting as “a sort of protest painting” of his own economic and social standing as well as that of his fellow African Americans.

Hayden himself had to take odd jobs to support himself and was acutely aware of the economic difficulties that many black artists experience. The inspiration for this painting Hayden said came from his friend Cloyd Boykin, also an artist, who supported himself through janitorial work: “I painted it because no one called Boykin the artist. They called him the janitor.” The Janitor Who Paints has often been regarded as both a self-portrait and a statement on adversity. (2)

Palmer Hayden (1890-1973), “The Janitor Who Paints,” ca. 1930, Oil on Canvas, Collection: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.57.28.

Mostly a self-taught artist, Hayden sought training in New York and Paris and was in Paris during the final years of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, but he had lived in New York during the formative years of that crucial period. He knew Harlem Renaissance artists and shared their efforts, triumphs, and frustrations.

Hayden returned from Paris in 1932 and worked on the W.P.A. Art Project.  During the late 1930s, he developed a consciously naive style, representing various aspects of African-American life in Harlem. In The Janitor Who Paints, the oversized hands and almost cartoonlike expressions were described as primitive, but the flat areas of color owe much to the influences of African and modern art that Hayden encountered in Paris.

Hayden’s The Janitor Who Paints and over 40 other works by 34 African American artists are featured in African American Art in the 20th Century, a traveling exhibition organized by Smithsonian American Art Museum, at The Westmoreland.


The text in this article includes excerpts from the African American Art in the 20th Century Exhibition Label, a traveling exhibition organized by Smithsonian American Art Museum.
1. Lynda Roscoe Hartigan African-American Art: 19th and 20th-Century Selections (brochure. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art)