By Dionn McDonald
Beauford Delaney was an African-American painter of the Harlem Renaissance. A great modernist painter, his work included abstract impressionism, pastel portraiture and representational streetscapes and landscapes. During his life he received critical acclaim for his bold and complicated uses of light, color and texture.
Delaney was born December 30, 1901 in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was the eighth of ten children, five of whom survived childhood. His mother, Delia Johnson, was a seamstress and domestic worker; his father, John Samuel Delaney, was a Methodist Episcopal minister and a barber. Religious faith, education and culture were of great importance in the Delaney family. Beauford’s artistic talent was greatly encouraged. At fourteen, he completed his first commissioned painting. The quality of his work gained him an introduction to a white painter, Lloyd Branson. Branson became his mentor, and encouraged him to study art in Boston. A few years earlier, Beauford’s older sister, Ogust Mae, had died. Struggling with grief and emotional unrest, Beauford welcomed the change.
In Boston, Beauford immersed himself in culture and studied classical painting. Unable to pay for his education, he informally attended classes at several art schools in Boston. His work was influenced by Monet’s impressionist use of light. He was also influenced by a local painter Alfred Morang, whose broad strokes were similar to Van Gogh. Beauford had arrived with letters of introduction in hand and was invited into the parlors of Boston’s upper-class society of social activists. Among them were important African-Americans such as the poet Countee Cullen and writer/activist James Weldon Johnson. As an African American moving through Boston’s white society, Beauford struggled with his many identities. While in Boston, he had his first gay experience, which added to his sense of difference. After six years of study in Boston, Beauford moved on to New York in order to advance his work.
Delaney arrived in Harlem during the Renaissance and at the start of the Great Depression. He was resourceful and created work for himself by offering to draw portraits of the city’s elite. The quality of his portraiture garnered him a position as a sketch artist at a dance school. One of his portraits was published in the New York Telegraph and the Chicago Defender. This exposure led to his work being exhibited in 1930 at the Whitney Studio Galleries, which later became the Whitney Museum of American Art. Delaney’s exhibition received positive reviews. He continued to paint New York socialites, Black leaders, jazz musicians and the people of Harlem. In 1932, his paintings were exhibited at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. Now a full-time artist and teacher, he joined the Art Students’ League where he met other artists, like Jackson Pollock. Delaney was also a member of the Harlem Arts Guild and other artists’ organizations. Much of the African-American work of this period contained race-related content. For Delaney, art was primarily expression rather than commentary. Although he was very much in tune with the issues of the day, his style became more abstract as an expression of his inner world. He also found inspiration in jazz music. Similar to great jazz music, much of his work was complicated, unpredictable and escaped traditional form.
In 1938, Beauford Delaney began to experience a new level of critical acclaim, with his first two one-man shows and coverage in Life magazine. After his third one-man show, his modernist cityscape Greene Street was compared to artists such as Van Gogh and Cézanne. Also featured during this show was Delaney’s first painting of the writer James Baldwin, Dark Rapture. Delaney became a life-long friend and mentor to Baldwin. During the 1940’s, Delaney’s work was greatly inspired by broad uses of vivid color, such as that of Matisse and Picasso. This inspiration can be seen in Untitled (Night Scene) and Can Fire in the Park. Delaney’s brushstrokes provide great texture that seems to lift the images from the canvas. Having received greater recognition, Delaney was featured in the exhibit, “The Negro in Contemporary Art”, where his Othello was well received. His 1948 solo exhibit at the Artist’s Gallery brought acceptance of Delaney as one of New York’s expressionists.
Delaney was awarded a brief fellowship at Yaddo, an artists’ retreat in upstate New York. This time spent outside of the city in nature settings moved his work more toward the abstract. His best work of the civil rights era, Earth Mother, juxtaposed a European expressionist style with Black objects. His time at Yaddo and away from New York also stimulated thoughts of traveling to Paris. In 1953, he left for Paris with the aid of patrons and friends. There he joined a community of American artists, including writer James Baldwin. After a difficult year, Delaney exhibited in the Musée d’Art Moderne and the Musée des Beaux Arts. His exciting manipulation of color was well received. He exhibited at numerous shows in Paris and throughout Europe, but only occasionally sold his work.
While in Europe, Delaney’s mental health deteriorated greatly, as he struggled with poverty and conflicts over his sexuality. Hearing of his mother’s death in 1958 added to his depression. Although he found relief in his work, the inner voices and thoughts that had plagued him for much of his life returned in full force on a trip to Greece. He is reported to have gone overboard from a ship to escape men whom he believed were trying to kill him. Delaney was diagnosed as having acute paranoid delusions and was placed on antidepressant medication. With improved health, he returned to his life as a painter in a new studio, acquired for him by friends.
Beginning in 1962, Delaney would complete some of his best work. But again, depression and alcohol drove him into a relapse. In 1962, his friends attempted to orchestrate a New York show of his work, to be sponsored by the Urban League. Baldwin’s letter to potential supporters said Delaney “brings great light out of the darkness of his journey, and makes his journey and his endeavor, and his triumph ours.” Unfortunately, the show never took place. In Delaney’s journal he spoke of “birth pains” and “enlightenment,” suggesting a sense of hope for improvement. Reflecting his improved health, he received a Fairfield Foundation grant and held a one-man show in 1964. By this time he was combining portraiture with expressionism. His 1966 Portrait of James Baldwin placed dark lines against a yellow abstraction, which reflected his departure from purely representational portraiture. In 1968, Delaney received a grant from the National Council of the Arts, which helped him to continue working. In the early 1970’s, he received many accolades and increased visibility of his work in the States. When praised for this, he commented “I ain’t seen no famous money, and I’m hungry.” Delaney’s final exhibition in Paris took place in 1973 at the Gallerie Speyer. The show was a success, with several works being sold. One reviewer said his work “stimulates the human soul, like a Billie Holiday recording.” His final exhibit during his life was at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where his Paris works were shown.
Delaney’s abstract work reflected his feelings of difference and emotional unrest. Throughout his time in the States he felt split, moving between different social worlds. Surrounded by his bohemian friends in New York’s Greenwich Village, he found freedom to explore a conflicted gay life. Yet, he remained affected by a racial difference that he could be distanced from in Harlem. Delaney suffered through periods of depression and disturbing visions, coupled with alcohol abuse. He was plagued by financial troubles and was often assisted by his wealthy patrons and friends. In 1975, Delaney’s mental and physical health took a turn for the worse. He was diagnosed with what was likely Alzheimer’s disease and was committed to St. Anne’s hospital in France.
Leeming, David. Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney. Oxford University Press. 1998.