Vertis Hayes, The Lynchers

Vertis Hayes, The Lynchers, 1930s, oil on canvas, 19-1/2 x 15-1/4 inches (Georgia Museum of Art, Athens); speakers: Dr. Shawnya Harris, Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art at the Georgia Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris Warning: this video contains graphic scenes of racial violence

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Hayes, The Lynchers

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Key points

  • The subject and title of this painting refers to the all too common practice of lynching (public killing of an individual who has not received any due process) of primarily Black men during the Jim Crow era, including the 1930s when Vertis Hayes produced this work. 
  • The scene focuses on the crowd of observers present at a lynching and mirrors photographs taken at the time, some of which were used to create postcards to promote and memorialize such acts of racial hatred. Hayes depicts a range of reactions among the perpetrators, some of whose expressions and actions reinforce the potential for violence.
  • For many, the killing of Black people by police is seen as a contemporary form of lynching. This image, therefore, is not only a haunting portrayal of the nation’s past, but has disturbing resonance with what is happening in the United States today.

Go deeper

Vertis Hayes, The Lynchers on Google Arts & Culture

Artist Highlight: Vertis Hayes (Georgia Museum of Art)

Learn about Vertis Hayes and his murals in Harlem Hospital

The Origins of Lynching Culture in the United States (Facing History and Ourselves)

History of Lynching in America (NAACP)

A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday (Dread Scott)

Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror (Equal Justice Initiative)

See another work by Vertis Hayes

More to think about

Which person in this painting draws your attention the most? Why? 

If you could talk to the artist, what would you want to ask him about this specific figure and about making the painting?

Research project ideas

The composition of this painting, and the choices the artist made about what to include and not include, forces us to confront questions of power and empathy—that of the perpetrators of the lynching and our own. Compare this work with images by two other artists who have engaged the subject of viewing or taking part in a lynching. 

Kerry James Marshall, Heirlooms and Accessories, 2002

Elizabeth Catlett, And A Special Fear For My Loved Ones, 1946–47

What compositional choices did each artist make and how do those choices affect your experience of the image and understanding of the history of lynching in the U.S., past and present?  

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.