In This Case: The Dapper Palmer Hayden
July 2, 2013
We are always sad to see a piece leave the Luce Foundation Center, especially when it's a visitor favorite. Sometimes though, an artwork's departure (for loan or display elsewhere in the museum) gives us an opportunity put up another piece from our collection. This was the case with Palmer Hayden's The Janitor Who Paints. Many visitors have inquired about the painting over the years so we were excited when there was a space large enough to display the painting. We were even more excited (we are an enthusiastic group) when we learned that Nicholas Miller, a fellow at the museum, was writing part of his dissertation on Palmer Hayden's work. Nicholas recently gave a talk on The Janitor Who Paints during our Art+Coffee program. You can watch Nicholas' talk on our YouTube channel. We also sat down with Nicholas to chat more about his interest in Hayden's work, the Art+Coffee talk, and his experience as a fellow.
Eye Level: What was your initial attraction to Palmer Hayden's The Janitor Who Paints?
Nicholas Miller: The first chapter of my dissertation is dedicated to discussing Hayden's paintings and experience living in Paris from 1927 through 1932. It was there, in 1931, that he created the first iteration of the painting. I think I was attracted to the many challenges the painting poses to interpretation. Why did Hayden paint over the original composition in the 1940s? Who is the artist represented in the painting, Palmer Hayden, his friend Cloyd Boykin, or perhaps, both? Was African art used as a model for the figure and, if so, what does it tell us about African diaspora communities? And finally, how do we talk about paintings made by African American artists that possess an unsettling proximity to racist caricatures? I'm not sure if any of these questions have definitive answers but I've done my best to provide a few possible solutions.
EL: You mentioned Hayden's dapper apparel in the talk. Why do you think his beret and clothes were so important to his identity?
NM: Well, the clothes make the man! Style, as scholars Richard Powell and Monica Miller have shown in their studies Cutting A Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture and Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, has always played a huge role in the ways members of the African diaspora forge their own identities. I think Hayden was very aware of his own background as a janitor and how this biographical fact was brought up by many critics discussing his work. Also, dandyism has close ties with early modernist art practice; one can think of, for instance, the French impressionists and especially author Charles Baudelaire. Hayden's beret, foulard, and three piece suits could be seen as a way to surpass his working-class background and create a new "artistic" identity while he lived in Paris. As a side, if you're interested in this aspect of black cultural production check out this year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival, specifically the programing surrounding The Will to Adorn: African American Diversity, Style, and Identity.
EL: A visitor noticed that the figure in The Janitor Who Paints is painting with his right hand. Did you ever figure out if Hayden was right or left-handed?
NM: Unfortunately, I haven't quite solved it yet! I've been looking into his biographical material located at the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, but it doesn't seem like anyone recorded what hand he painted with. The answer is unclear because in The Janitor Who Paints the artist is using his right hand, but in photographs for the Harmon Foundation he is seen painting with his left. Both images might be staged and not necessarily truthful. Yet another issue with the painting. I'm still hoping to track it down.
EL: Did the talk give you any insights or new thoughts about the painting?
NM: Certainly. One of the best and most productive aspects of the talk was being able to take a group up to see the actual painting. So often when I look at a painting it is done in isolation and it was therefore fascinating to see what everyone focused on when viewing the work. For instance, what I originally thought was a radiator was actually the headboard of a foreshortened bed on the right side of the canvas. It was a wonderful collaborative viewing session.
EL: You've been a fellow at the museum this year. What does being a fellow at the museum entail?
NM: Being a pre-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is, first and foremost, a wonderful honor and has been one of the most productive times of my graduate student career. As a fellow, our primary responsibility is to work steadfastly on our dissertations. We are provided with work space, library and archive access, and ample resources. We also attend weekly lunchbag lectures, have monthly writing workshops, Friday lunches with curators, and one symposium where we present our recent work. The fact that all of the fellows are in residence at the Smithsonian and that the museum has fostered such a congenial and collaborative environment is certainly a very unique opportunity and what makes this fellowship so special.
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