The Janitor Who Paints

Media - 1967.57.28 - SAAM-1967.57.28_1 - 51965
Copied Palmer Hayden, The Janitor Who Paints, ca. 1937, repainted after 1940, oil on canvas, 39 1832 78 in. (99.383.6 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.57.28

Artwork Details

The Janitor Who Paints
ca. 1937, repainted after 1940
Not on view
39 1832 78 in. (99.383.6 cm.)
lower left in oil: Palmer/Hayden
Credit Line
Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Mediums Description
oil on canvas
  • Group
  • Animal — cat
  • Figure group — female and child
  • African American
  • Occupation — art — artist
  • Occupation — service — janitor
  • Architecture Interior — domestic
  • Object — art tool — palette
  • Portrait male — Hayden, Palmer — self portrait
Object Number

Artwork Description

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)


Media - 1995.22.1 - SAAM-1995.22.1_1 - 65784
African American Art in the 20th Century
January 18, 2019January 18, 2019
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is home to one of the most significant collections of African American art in the world.