A Memphis juke joint

Vertis Hayes, Juke Joint, 1946, oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4 cm (The Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Collection of African American Art, Georgia Museum of Art), a Seeing America video

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Hayes, Juke Joint

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Key points

  • Vertis Hayes was one of a number of artists in the 1930s and 1940s who contributed to the social realist movement in the United States, which showcased people engaging in moments of daily life, also known as genre scenes. By representing the authentic experiences of people often living under oppression and facing struggle, Social Realist artists sought to challenge the systems that created such conditions.
  • While there is no singular social realist style, the features of Juke Joint, including fluid brushwork and mark-making, organic forms, bold use of color or contrast, and a heightened sense of energy, are also visible in the work of other artists associated with the movement.
  • Juke Joints are local hangouts in the city or country which feature entertainment in the form of (often) live music, drinking, and dancing. They have been a central part of African American communities throughout the South and other parts of the United States. The Juke Joint depicted in this painting was likely meant to be located someplace just outside Memphis, Tennessee, where Vertis Hayes worked in the 1940s.

Go deeper

Artist Highlight: Vertis Hayes (Georgia Museum of Art)

Learn about Vertis Hayes and his murals in Harlem Hospital

Juke Joints (Mississippi Encyclopedia)

Social Realism (MoMA)

More to think about

Consider Vertis Hayes’ choice to show the setting for the Juke Joint instead of the space inside the building, where music, drinking, and dancing took place. Why might he have done this? What is the effect on our understanding of this moment in United States history?

Research project idea

  • Juke Joints are directly tied to African American history and the spread of blues music. Conduct research on the blues during the Jim Crow era, leading up to years just following WWII, when Vertis Hayes painted Juke Joint. Identify 2–3 blues musicians from this period, write a brief summary report about them, and share it with your class to create a collective history of blues music. 

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.