IN DECEMBER, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) acquired “Three Folk Musicians” (1967), a major work by Romare Bearden. When the purchase was announced, VMFA Director Alex Nyerges said the collage painting “bolsters our effort to represent a diverse range of cultures in our galleries and allows us to explore a full range of American stories with rich context and a broad eye.”
Recent acquisitions of paintings by Eldzier Cortor (1916-2015) and Palmer Hayden (1890-1973), who like Bearden are important 20th century African American artists, have furthered the effort to broaden the museum’s collection. The VMFA added “Untitled (Dreamer)” (circa 1930) by Hayden (shown above), and “Southern Landscape” (1941) by Cortor to it holdings in 2016. The paintings are currently on view in the museum’s Black History Month exhibition through the end of February.
A PAINTER AND PRINTMAKER, Cortor recently died at the age of 99 on Thanksgiving Day in 2015. Born in Richmond, Va., his family migrated north to Chicago where he was raised from the age of one. He spent most of his career in New York, but had deep roots in Chicago where he grew up.
Educated at the Art Institute of Chicago, he was employed in the late 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Program and was often described as one of the last living African American artists who participated in the WPA. In 1946 and 1950, shortly before he moved to New York, his work was featured with other African American artists in Life magazine.
Cortor’s body of work is pioneering because he emphasized the beauty of the black female figure, a rarity among African American artists in his era. As exemplified by the VMFA acquisition, “Southern Landscape,” he depicted women with grace and dignity, sometimes in the nude. His figures are lithe, yet shapely, with elongated torsos referencing the silhouettes of African sculpture.
Shortly before he passed, the New York Times filmed an interview with Cortor in which he recalled life in Chicago and discussed drawing the attention of viewers.
“If you go to a museum and you approach a nude painting, what does it give you? …the beauty of the female figure. The idea is to get someone to pause a while, ’cause you see how people, they walk past pictures,” Cortor says in the video. “But the idea of a painting is you try to just get them to stay with that painting for awhile. Just don’t brush past it. That’s the idea. If you can get someone, catch their eye for a little bit.”
“If you go to a museum and you approach a nude painting, what does it give you? …the beauty of the female figure. The idea is to get someone to pause a while, ’cause you see how people, they walk past pictures. But the idea of a painting is you try to just get them to stay with that painting for awhile.” — Eldzier Cortor, New York Times video
HAYDEN LIVED IN NEW YORK at the beginning and end of his career. Born in Widewater, Va., he grew up drawing images of boats on the Potomac. He moved to Washington, D.C., as a teen and worked doing odd jobs at a drugstore. Eventually, Hayden enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1912. He was discharged in 1920 and moved to New York where he got a job at the post office. He attended a six-week summer course at Columbia University and received informal guidance from a professor at the Cooper Union School of Art (1925). He spent two summers in Maine, where he studied at the Commonwealth Art Colony in Boothbay, working in exchange for tuition.
In 1926, Hayden was the first recipient of the Harmon Foundation Gold Medal award for Distinguished Achievement in the Visual Arts, recognized for a harbor scene watercolor. It was quite an achievement, given he was unknown and lacked rigorous formal training. The award attracted notice in Harlem and the greater African American community. Hayden used the prize money to help fund his travel to Paris, where he sought out Henry O. Tanner and met Alain Locke. There he continued to paint marine views, captured Paris scenes, and eventually his subject matter focused on the African American experience. Hayden returned to New York in 1932, working in the office of the Harmon Foundation and also, like Cortor, for the WPA. Hayden continued to live and work in New York until his death.
In 1926, Hayden was the first recipient of the Harmon Foundation Gold Medal award for Distinguished Achievement in the Visual Arts. …Hayden used the prize money to help fund his travel to Paris, where he sought out Henry O. Tanner and met Alain Locke.
The artist’s images reflecting popular culture and African American folklore drew heavily on his memories of the South, his imagination and experiences. “Untitled (Dreamer),” the VMFA acquisition, explores a common theme for Hayden. The subject appears to be in a dream state, imagining himself playing three different instruments. The painting is executed in a rich palette of saturated hues.
In the 1993 volume, “A History of African American Artists: From 1792 to the Present” co-edited by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, the authors note, “Hayden often painted dreams, trying to render them quite faithfully. Yet he considered dreams ‘not very creative The dream gives you the whole thing, including the colors.'” CT
TOP IMAGE: PALMER HAYDEN, “Untitled (Dreamer),” circa 1930 (oil on canvas). | Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, Photo by David Stover © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
“Echoes of our past: The narrative artistry of Palmer C. Hayden” coincided with an exhibition at what is now the California African American Museum. The volume “A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present” co-edited by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, explores the life and work of numerous artists including Palmer Hayden and Eldzier Cortor.