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Finished unfinished

Beneath the Surface of The Janitor Who Paints

By Ellie Lerman

What constitutes a finished painting? At what stage does the artist step back, fulfilled, and declare their work undeniably done, dusted, complete. Palmer Hayden, an African-American artist working during the Harlem Renaissance, toes the line between finished and unfinished work in a controversial piece that received harsh criticism when exhibited.

The Harlem Renaissance was an artistic explosion centred in Harlem, New York, spanning across the 1920s that cumulated around the promotion of the black experience through jazz, literature, music, poetry, and art. This period saw a flowering of black literature arise through magazines such as Survey Graphic, and Fire!! that brought together the best efforts of leading black artists, writers, and thinkers. Artists such as Aaron Douglass traversed through the black experience creating large, vibrant murals that follow history through Africa, idyll, slavery, Reconstruction, to aspiration; ending on a note of hopeful victory.


Palmer Hayden grew up financially struggling in Virginia, and while pursuing his slow-moving art career, he worked as a postal clerk and janitor in order to provide for himself. Hayden is notable for his depiction of African-American life during the Harlem Renaissance, as well as racial conflicts/obstacles and perceptions of racism. His paintings divide critics for endorsing and depicting xenophobic stereotypes of African-Americans.

The Janitor Who Paints, completed in 1937, depicts an African-American man dutifully painting his wife and young child amidst a clustered living room. Objects of family life and artist/janitor life scatter the scene: a dustbin, brooms, coats, and a cat; while the mother and child calmly gaze into the vague distance. The scene appears cosy but crowded, a realistic peer into the life of struggling artist. However, it hides an unsettling image beneath its painted surface. The original canvas depicted the figures bearing garish and inflammatory characteristics of Jim Crow caricatures, with exaggerated facial features including lips, nostrils, and foreheads. On the wall hangs a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, at which the protagonist rolls his eyes, satirising both Hayden’s long-time institutional patron, the Harmon Foundation; and ingratiatingly hailing Lincoln as the ‘revered patron saint of white paternalism’. Through this multifaceted critique, Hayden emphasises the conflicting relationships between black artists and white patrons.


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When publicly exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1939, the original painting split opinions. Critics suggested that through Hayden’s internalisation and recycling of negative black stereotypes, he perpetuates racist tropes in a primitive and demeaning manner. Alternatively, Hayden’s work could be seen as an expression of black empowerment through the ownership and embracing of defining stereotypes harshly used against him during his lifetime. Hayden’s own comments on the painting contrast starkly against the criticism it attracted- he intended the painting as a tribute to Cloyd Boykin, a fellow painter who, like Hayden, worked as a janitor while pursuing an artistic career. “It’s a sort of protest painting,” he explained, “I painted it because no one called Boykin the artist. They called him the janitor.”. Hayden therefore approaches the black experience with satire, anger, and self-effacing pride. However, Hayden does not approach these issues with delicacy, but rather with brash, vulgar caricatures; and ultimately risks causing offence and misunderstanding.


The physical act of painting over the initial racially disagreeable image injects the piece with a historical narrative that can’t be ignored. It is as if the essence beneath the revised image prevails, fights to be recognised, and refuses to be silenced. This contributes an ominous effect to the painting and paves the way for other artworks to be held under a critical eye. Metaphorically, the painting represents the racist discourse that engulfs the US even today and begs not to be overlooked (or painted over). From Hayden’s experiences, it is clear that painting is a complex process; one that requires revisions, adaptations, and rearrangements. The Janitor Who Paints comes equipped with a rich history that close attention must be paid to. Sometimes, a double take is essential: critical looking and investigation should be encouraged when analysing a work of art, as the truths beneath initial impressions can be both fascinating and invaluable.

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