The Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles
This work depicts Bonaventure Island in Quebec, Canada, a migratory bird sanctuary that is home to the largest colony of northern gannets in the world. Many of the birds portrayed in flight in Palmer Hayden’s “Isle de Bonaventure” feature the black-tipped wings that are characteristic of the northern gannet.
Although this work is undated, “Isle de Bonaventure” is considered one of the earliest works in the Palmer Hayden Collection, due to its subject and what is known of the artist’s biography. In his early years, Hayden spent time drawing fishing boats, sailing boats, and seascapes. He worked during the summers of 1925 and 1926 in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, which would not have been very far from Bonaventure Island.
The fifteen works shown at Hayden’s first solo exhibition at the New York Civic Club in 1926 were landscapes and marine studies. Palmer Hayden won first prize from the Harmon Foundation in 1927 for an ocean-themed painting called “Schooners."
After Hayden returns to New York City from Paris, “African Dancer” (singular title and single dancer) emerges as one of two similarly titled watercolor explorations of African dance that Palmer Hayden completed in 1932. This work shows a single female African dancer in the foreground with huts and palm trees in the background.
After Palmer Hayden returns to New York City from Paris, "African Dancers" (plural title and multiple dancers) emerges as one of two similarly titled watercolor explorations of African dance that the artist completed in 1932. This work appears to expand on "African Dancer" (singular title and single dancer) in that it shows not just one dancer but three dancers, two drummers, braided hair, a mask worn ceremonially, and traditional clothing.
The painting “Fétiche et Fleurs” (Fetish and Flowers) is an iconic still life showing a Fang reliquary head from Gabon placed on top of Kuba raffia cloth from Central Africa.
It captures a turning point in the expression of African American identity that begins to incorporate specific references to African cultural roots. Fétiche et Fleurs won the Rockefeller prize at the 1933 Harmon Foundation exhibit in New York.
“Fétiche et Fleurs” was completed when Hayden returned to New York City after living in Paris from 1927 to 1932. Hayden's time in Paris allowed him to view himself as an American as it can only be done outside America.
His Paris years gave him a chance to reflect specifically on what it meant to be African American and expanded the range of his subjects and themes with an emphasis on the narrative aspects.
When he returned to America, he would become an American scene painter of the Black experience.
“Midsummer Night In Harlem” depicts extended families in the form of neighbors with their Southern roots transplanted into an urban setting.
People are gathered outside on the steps and in the streets of their neighborhood, seeking relief from the heat and humidity of apartment living.
Smiles are in abundance as the surveyors of the scene below crowd every window. The number and sameness of the faces in “Midsummer Night In Harlem” conveys the loss of personal identity that comes with living in a crowded urban environment.
The African American oral tradition continues as the people share their stories, hopes, fears, and dreams.
The scene in “Beale Street Blues” is swinging, especially the couple dancing in the center. Two musicians play in the foreground, one on tenor saxophone and another behind him on trumpet.
At the bar, the man in the white hat has ordered a rosé wine – perhaps for the smiling lady waiting to his right.
The people in this club are “suited and booted” in the styles of the day. Still, the owners of the establishment have posted a humorous word to the wise on the wall behind the bar.
“Beale Street Blues” features a frame constructed out of a wooden G. H. Mumm Cordon Rouge champagne crate from 1943, the year the painting was created.
This banjo player is alone in the painting, but he’s not singing to himself. You are his audience, standing outside the picture.
You are listening to the banjo player’s blues in place of the “cronies” shown in Hayden’s other blues-themed paintings. He’s looking right at you with his one good eye.
Through the lyrics shown in the painting, “Banjo Song” points its “listeners” directly back to slavery for the roots of the blues.
This painting reflects two themes that run throughout the Palmer Hayden Collection: “Family” and “The Church.” It’s easy to relate to this little girl’s pride over her spiffy church shoes, and the witness to this moment certainly would have been a family member.
In some parts of the South, it was traditional for children to have two pairs of shoes: one for school and one for church. Palmer Hayden was the 5th of 12 children, so this painting might easily have been based on a memory of one of his sisters.
Palmer Hayden indicated that his father James Hedgeman was a professional hunter and tour guide for fishermen and hunters who came down to Widewater, Virginia, primarily from Washington, DC.
In any case, the dog in this painting has found a “raccoon up a persimmon tree,” and he’s barking to let everyone know.
This scruffy gray dog and many others appear throughout Palmer Hayden paintings in this collection. The dogs are always shown in outdoor settings, never indoors.
In “Berry Pickers,” three generations of women gather wild berries in the woods. The area is sunlit, and the four buckets brimming with fruit indicate the traditional abundance of seasons past at this location.
We can imagine that among these berry pickers, wisdom, moral values, and cultural heritage are part of the matriarchal lineage being passed from the elderly to the young.
The same trusty gray dog from “Raccoon Up A Persimmon Tree” makes an appearance in “Berry Pickers,” no doubt looking to snack on a few berries or chase away any fellow critters with similar plans.
The street signs shown in this painting indicate the intersection of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem.
Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association was headquartered in Harlem from 1918 to 1927, so the artist might well have seen “a Garvey parade” pass through the depicted intersection while he lived in New York.
The mounted men, formality, and regimentation of Garvey’s parade group may have reminded Hayden of his years in the military.
In the museum's archives, there is a photo of a mounted military man with “10th Cavalry Man” written on the back of it by the artist.
That photo of an unnamed “10th Cavalry Man” might have been Hayden’s inspiration for this watercolor painting of the same title.
Palmer Hayden enlisted in the 10th Cavalry in 1916 and was himself a “10th Cavalry man” in his younger days.
Palmer Hayden’s last painting, “Cavalry Escort, West Point” was left unfinished when the artist died in 1973.
It was to be part of a series depicting black soldiers from the early days of World War I through World War II, when separate black regiments were abolished.
The series on black solders was commissioned by the Creative Artists Public Service Program Foundation of New York.
"Working on the Railroad" (1939-43) is not one of the 12 paintings that are officially part of the John Henry Series by Palmer C. Hayden at The Museum of African American Art. However, this piece was completed just before the start of the John Henry Series and depicts what might be considered the “setting” for the John Henry Series, which is dated 1944–47.
"When John Henry was a little baby, Sittin’ on his Mama’s knee...
He said, "The Big Bend Tunnel On the C&O Line Is gonna be the death of me!"
So the famous "Ballad of John Henry" begins, and there are many versions. This verse explains the shocked expression on the mother’s face in Palmer Hayden’s "When John Henry Was A Baby," as she is holding baby John Henry with his little hammer, and he has apparently just predicted his own death. Her expression is quite understandable under the circumstances.
This painting shows the wispy ghost of John Henry hovering above the entrance to the Big Bend Tunnel (also known as the Great Bend Tunnel). Outside the tunnel are a few local workers, one of whom looks like he might be saying, “Did you hear that?” The ghost in the painting is a good metaphor for the legend of John Henry that has been “hanging over” the region for many generations. This is not one of the 12 paintings that are officially part of the John Henry Series by Palmer C. Hayden at The Museum of African American Art.
This painting shows how the legend of John Henry was communicated regionally over the years as people visited the area around the Great Bend Tunnel in Talcott, West Virginia. It is not one of the 12 paintings that are officially part of the John Henry Series by Palmer C. Hayden at The Museum of African American Art.
The text in this online exhibit includes excerpts from The Museum of African American Art's exhibit catalog "Echoes of Our Past: The Narrative Artistry of Palmer C. Hayden" by Allan M. Gordon, PhD. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 88-60629. Copyright © 1988 The Museum of African American Art.
Special thanks to digital artist Lindsey Mejia at Samy's Camera Digital Service Bureau in Los Angeles for careful digitization of images in the Palmer C. Hayden Collection for this online exhibit.
This online exhibit is curated by Keasha Dumas Heath for The Museum of African American Art in partnership with Google Cultural Institute.