If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Vertis Hayes, The Lynchers

The painting "The Lynchers" by Virtus Hayes from the 1930s depicts a crowd involved in a lynching, focusing on the perpetrators, not the victim. The artwork reveals the casual indifference and even pride of the participants, including children, highlighting the horrific nature of such acts. The painting serves as a haunting reminder of past violence and a call for empathy and tolerance. Created by Smarthistory.

Want to join the conversation?

No posts yet.

Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Beth] We're in the Georgia Museum of Art, looking at a painting by Virtus Hayes, "The Lynchers" and it dates from the 1930s. And as soon as we read the title, we conjure an image, at least I do, of the terrible violence of a lynching. - [Shawnya] And the violence would be perpetrated against African-Americans for basically no reason, other than pure hatred. - [Beth] Minor infractions, looking at someone the wrong way, crossing the street the wrong way, white fears of interracial sex. And the purpose of lynching was to terrorize communities and to keep them under control. - [Shawnya] The largest body of individuals impacted were African-American males. And that can resonate with the contemporary era. - [Beth] So we're talking about public acts of violence and torture that took place in front of, often, large crowds of people. - [Shawnya] And in actuality, many of these were documented by the perpetrators themselves. They would photograph a person that was hung or burned and through postcards. And so this painting is interesting because it doesn't show the victim, but it does show many of the perpetrators in many ways that resemble those early photographs. - [Beth] The photographs would have the victim and those who witnessed and perpetrated the violence, but here the victim is missing and we're focusing entirely on the crowd. And my mind does go to those photographs. And then I come back and the nonchalance that I see in some of these figures, it feels almost unbelievable. - [Shawnya] It's everything from indifference, where some people have their eyes on the actual scene in a very intense way. There's a smugness, but what's interesting are the children in the front. Having children at an event like this, that is so violent, it makes it especially heinous. A young girl who is still holding a doll, staring at this scene which is so graphic. And then a young boy who actually is looking down. So you wonder if there's a little bit of an aversion to what he's seeing or a little bit of reflection that this is not something good. - [Beth] The oldest figure who's holding onto his suspenders and has a rifle in his hand, looks very much to me like the kinds of people we see in the photographs; proud of what he's doing. He wants someone to photograph him, to show him doing this because he believes in the righteousness of what the crowd is doing. And then the figure next to him who lights a cigarette. There's something very casual and every day about that. And then the figure who he's in conversation with seems to be loading his gun. - [Shawnya] The implication of violence, whether it be in the form of a rifle, a pistol, the suggestion of burning a victim with the cigarette lighter is really haunting as well. We get a sense of this mob mentality that it isn't just these three central figures, but there are all these figures in the background, whether they seem more anonymous, their eyes are non-distinct, they become this lump and mob of figures. - [Beth] It's as if the artist is showing us all the different kinds of people who took part in lynchings. From the man who wears the black hat to the figure in suspenders. So there seem to be generations and people from different classes who have united in this act. - [Shawnya] Interestingly enough, the artist, who was born in Atlanta, left the south in part because of the threat of lynchings. And he would have created this after he had lived and worked as a muralist in New York. And moving from these affirming images of African-Americans and the Harlem hospital murals to ones that tackled such hard subjects as lynching. It showed the range of issues in the 1930s. - [Beth] And here, the perpetrators are very close to us. - [Shawnya] The interesting anecdote about this painting is that there was another title, possibly, "The Victims", which one could argue it's not only the victims that we don't see, but the victims that these people would become, violent acts have an impact on them negatively and through generations, as implied by the children. - [Beth] Witnessing that level of violence is a traumatic experience. It can lead to people feeling less empathy. - [Shawnya] The fact that we can still look at a painting like this and it haunts us, reminds us of where we've been, but also where we are and where we need to be in terms of levels of empathy and tolerance in this country. (jazzy piano music)