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The Janitor Who Paints

ca. 1930 Palmer Hayden Born: Widewater, Virginia 1890 Died: New York, New York 1973 oil on canvas 39 1/8 x 32 7/8 in. (99.3 x 83.6 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the Harmon Foundation 1967.57.28 Smithsonian American Art Museum
1st Floor, South Wing

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Palmer Hayden was known for his paintings of the African American scene. In a 1969 interview he described The Janitor Who Paints, created around 1930, as "a sort of protest painting" of his own economic and social standing as well as that of his fellow African Americans. Hayden said his friend Cloyd Boykin, an artist who, like Hayden, had supported himself as a janitor, inspired this piece: "I painted it because no one called Boykin the artist. They called him the janitor." Details within the cramped apartment—the duster and the trashcan, for example—point to the janitor's profession; the figure's dapper clothes and beret, much like those Hayden himself wore, point to his artistic pursuits. Hayden's use of perspective was informed by modern art practices, which favored abstraction and simplified forms. He originally exaggerated the figure's facial features, which many of his contemporaries criticized as African American caricatures, but later altered the painting. He maintained the janitor as the protagonist as it represented larger civil rights issues within the African American community. (John Ott, "Labored Stereotypes: Palmer Hayden's 'The Janitor Who Paints,'" American Art 22, no.1, Spring 2008)


Animal - cat

Architecture Interior - domestic

Ethnic - African-American

Figure group - female and child

Object - art tool - palette

Occupation - art - artist

Occupation - service - janitor

Portrait male - Hayden, Palmer - self portrait


paint - oil

fabric - canvas

About Palmer Hayden

Born: Widewater, Virginia 1890 Died: New York, New York 1973