The Janitor Who Paints

  • Palmer Hayden, The Janitor Who Paints, ca. 1937, repainted after 1940, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.57.28

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)

The Janitor Who Paints
ca. 1937, repainted after 1940
Not on view
39 1832 78 in. (99.383.6 cm.)
Credit Line

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Gift of the Harmon Foundation

Mediums Description
oil on canvas
  • Occupation – service – janitor
  • Occupation – art – artist
  • African-American
  • Object – art tool – palette
  • Architecture Interior – domestic
  • Portrait male – Hayden, Palmer – self portrait
  • African American
Object Number
Linked Open Data
Linked Open Data URI

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