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Palmer Hayden

Palmer Hayden, 1950

Palmer Hayden, 1950

Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Papers of African American Artists

Born 1890, Widewater, Virginia

Died 1973, New York City

Hayden was born Peyton Cole Hedgeman in a small Virginia town roughly fifty miles southwest of Washington, DC. After moving to DC at age sixteen to live with an aunt, he took a job as a general laborer for the circus. In 1912 he enlisted in the military, but due to a mistaken reference letter, he was registered as Palmer Cole Hayden, a name he adopted as his own. By 1920 he had left the military, and he began to study painting—in New York City with Cooper Union art instructor Victor Perard and later in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, at the Commonwealth Art Colony. When Hayden traveled to Paris in 1927, his painting focus changed from seascapes to genre scenes of the thriving African diaspora in the French metropolis. Stylistically, he developed a more abstract approach that flattened the pictorial field and represented the human figure in ways that at times uneasily paralleled stereotypical portrayals of African Americans in popular culture.

Returning to New York in 1932, Hayden continued to paint in this flat, faux-naïf style. Composing imaginary scenes of a sleeping child dreaming of the syncopated rhythms of jazz or of smartly dressed field workers singing among the crops, Hayden set out to document the significance of black folk music to cultural innovation. Hayden also ironically revisited his military enlistment around this time. In 10th Cavalry Trooper, he depicts one of the famed Buffalo Soldiers riding off for duty on a horse whose flattened form is reminiscent of a weathervane or carousel horse. With war imminent in 1939 and African Americans still struggling for equal rights, Hayden appears to parody any enthusiasm for voluntary enlistment. Invested in the stories and cultural practices that shaped black life in the early twentieth century, he created works that reflect diverse characteristics and histories of African Americans in the US.

Nicholas Miller

Leininger-Miller, Theresa. New Negro Artists in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922–1934. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Wolfskill, Phoebe. “Caricature and the New Negro Art: Archibald Motley, Jr. and Palmer Hayden.” Art Bulletin 91, no. 3 (September 2009): 343–365.