Beauford Delaney

American Painter

Born: December 30, 1901
Knoxville, Tennessee
Died: March 26, 1979
Paris, France
The abstraction, ostensibly, is simply for me the penetration of something that is more profound in many ways than rigidity of a form. A form if it breathes some, if it has some enigma to it, it is also the enigma that is the abstract, I would think.

Summary of Beauford Delaney

An often overlooked American artist, Beauford Delaney's artistic career straddled all of the most important art movements in the first half of the 20th century. He found himself among the heady intellectual and artistic milieu of the Harlem Renaissance as well as the modernist explorations of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz's circle, and he shared similar interests with burgeoning Abstract Expressionists. Delaney's output ranged from portraiture and city scenes to abstract compositions, but in all of his paintings he communicated the vitality and rhythms of his subjects.

Perhaps overlooked because of his move to Paris at a moment when the American art scene was consolidating or perhaps because of his life-long struggles with mental illness, Delaney's artistic profile did not really register in the narratives of American modernism, but his reputation has become important to younger artists such as Chris Ofili and Glenn Ligon.


Progression of Art


The Burning Bush

This painting is one of Delaney's most prominent early works, and indicative of the strong impression that biblical imagery made on the artist as a young man. In this small piece, a swirling towering inferno divides a bright blue sky. Earthy greens, browns, purples, and oranges represent an acrid desert landscape and the bush fire which bursts from it. Critics have described this painting as a statement of Delaney's intentions as a modernist painter, departing from a realist approach to embrace a more evocative and emotional style which went on to characterise his life's work. Stylistically, this painting is reminiscent of Post-Impressionist artists such as Paul Gaugin, not only in the earthy color palette but also in Gauguin's ideas of the spiritual and the "primitive" in nature.

The Burning Bush is also highly significant in terms of the subject matter. Harlem Renaissance painters and writers shared the tendency to draw on spiritual hymns and the powerful influence of the Church as an important part of their culture. While Delaney often resisted being pigeonholed as a "Negro" artist, the term used at the time, he did wish to work with the other Harlem Renaissance artists, such as Hale Woodruff, to celebrate and represent African American heritage. Therefore, the burning bush represents the towering, all mighty presence of the force of God in his life.

Oil on paperboard - Newark Museum, Newark, NJ


Can Fire in the Park

In Can Fire in the Park, a group of men huddle together over an open fire in a New York park. While the painting is representational, it is striking in its use of colors and abstracted forms. The mix of streetlights, moonlight, and the can fire produce waves and puddles of light shown in yellow, purple, and blue. This use of color produces a scene which is both moody and vibrant at the same time.

This painting is typical of Delaney's work in New York in the 1940s when he focused on cityscapes representing the Harlem and Greenwich Village communities he inhabited. While the huddled characters exude warmth and inclusiveness, they also seem isolated, just as Delaney felt himself throughout most of his life. It is described by the Smithsonian American Art Museum as a "disturbingly contemporary vignette [which] conveys a legacy of deprivation linked not only to the Depression years after 1929 but also to the longstanding disenfranchisement of black Americans, portrayed here as social outcasts...." Delaney's combined sense of celebration and melancholy in his portrayals of the African American community contribute a profound statement to the Harlem Renaissance.

Oil on canvas - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC


Jazz Quartet

Delaney's love of musical rhythms is on full demonstration in his 1946 painting Jazz Quartet. A group of jazz musicians perform in a colorfully decorated interior. The scene is a riot of blues, yellows, greens and blues. While at first glance this setting may seem like a Harlem jazz club or bar, the Star of David in the upper left hand corner actually shows it to be an old synagogue. Little background is known about the exact setting which inspired the piece, but there was a small but prominent Jewish African American community in New York in the 1940s that Delaney may have encountered.

This attraction to the internal vibrancy of an outcast or fringe community is typical of Delaney's subjects. Delaney loved meeting people of different cultural backgrounds and felt an innate sympathy, as a gay African American man, towards minority groups. Such sympathy came easy to a man so full of cultural contradictions: black, but mixed in white circles; gay, but secretive about it; American, but full of European influences. In fact, this painting, while celebrating the pure vibrancy of multi-sensory life in New York City, hearken to the styles of French artists like Cézanne and Matisse. In the end, Delaney seems to be telling us to forget these taxonomies and instead enjoy the jubilation of jazz, which he described as "warm, vibrant, and conducive to dreaming and romantic musing."

Oil on canvas - Collection of Burt and Patricia Reinfrank, Paris


Portrait of James Baldwin

The relationship between James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney was one of the most important and intimate of Delaney's life, both in New York and then in Paris, where they both settled. The elder and the younger artists fed off of each other's creativity. Baldwin recalled, "I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, 'Look.' I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, 'Look again,' which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can't explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you've had that experience, you see differently."

This 1955 portrait of Baldwin is one of many that Delaney painted. It demonstrates the way in which, in many ways, these two men were kindred spirits; both were African American, gay artists struggling in a racist and homophobic society. In this portrait, the intimacy between the two men is obvious. Baldwin looks touchingly young and vulnerable, with exaggerated large eyes and long facial features and limbs. His clothes are richly colored and soft, and his figure is surrounded by abstract blocks of soft pastel colors, radiating out from the man and giving the impression that Baldwin literally radiates warm light. The painting is an illustration of one artist's eye revelling in another's.

Collection of Halley K Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, New York



In the 1950s while in Paris, Delaney began to experiment with abstraction. In this Untitled painting we see thick spirals and eddies of white and yellow paint enmeshed with strokes of blue and pink. Recalling the sumptuousness and joyousness of Rococo painting, the surface teems with energy and vitality. Art critic Joseph Nechvatal describes the painting in poetic terms, "Untitled evokes bright summertime diffraction, with balmy curvilinear swirls passing through wisps of cool blue air. The whiplashing thick juicy lines also disposed me to feelings of ecstatic writhing eels almost fin-de-siècle Art Nouveau in mood. It has a quality of heightened awareness, of focused openness, and expected connectivity...."

Reveling in his new found freedoms in France, one senses that Delaney channeled those freedoms into his artistic process, throwing off the years of figurative work. He never lost sight, though, of the modern European artists that were so important to him. One certainly feels the influence of Monet's late water lily paintings, but one also feels that Delaney is not trying to capture an objective, phenomenal light like the Impressionists but something more spiritual, more transcendent. The rising crescendo of the central, swirling column also evoke the rhythms of jazz, another important touchstone for Delaney.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald

This 1968 portrait is one of Delaney's latest pieces, just 7 years before he was permanently hospitalised in a mental asylum. It combines Delaney's explorations of abstraction with his avowed interest in portraiture. The face of African American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald emerges out of a plane of soft yellows, peaches, and greys. Her visage hovers and vibrates with energy. Yellow, for Delaney, was a spiritual color representing healing, light, and redemption.

Poet Soujourner Ahebe writes, "[I]t is this dynamism of Fitzgerald's voice and message that Delaney wished to capture in his painting of her. His use of the color yellow is not solely about an obsession with light, but also an opportunity to look into the internal landscape of a person, and he takes full advantage of this opportunity with Ella." Delaney's portraits always strived to capture the inner essence of his sitters, their "inner light." This portrait of Ella Fitzgerald is a celebration of her beautiful voice and spirit of creativity, freedom, expression; everything that Delaney as a fellow African American artist in Paris hoped to find. The freedom that he found within this jazz and art community in Paris was a shining light, despite the struggles that marked the end of his life.

Oil on canvas - SCAD Museum of Modern Art, Savannah, Georgia

Biography of Beauford Delaney

Childhood and Education

Beauford Delaney's early life was full of contrasts. Raised in Knoxville, Tennessee during the Jim Crow era, Delaney's mother had been born into slavery, and Beauford was the eighth of ten children. Delia, his mother, made a living as a cleaner and laundress to the rich, white people in town, and his father Samuel was a Methodist preacher. Only four of the children survived into adulthood because, according to Delaney, "So much sickness came from improper places to live - long distances to walk to schools improperly heated...too much work at home - natural conditions common to the poor that take the bright flowers like terrible cold in nature...."

Despite their economic poverty, his parents were also strong and respected members of the black community and church of the town. While in many ways this rigid Church upbringing was oppressive for the Delaney children, it also provided strength, dignity, and an emotional outlet. Many of Delaney's earliest drawings were copies of pictures from Sunday school cards and the family bible. His father's strength of spirit and expression was informative for the young man. His mother Delia, a talented seamstress, strongly encouraged creative pursuits. Delaney's biographer David Leeming argues that it was Delia's creative encouragement and sense of strength and ambition which fuelled both Beauford and his brother Joseph as young artists. By age 14, Beauford had completed his first commissioned painting and was beginning to be noticed for his artistic accomplishments.

Education and Early Work

As a teenager, Delaney worked as a helper at the Post Sign Company and began to design signs of his own. He was noticed by the elderly Impressionist Lloyd Branson, Knoxville's most successful artist. Despite their racial divide and Branson's conservative politics, Branson began to mentor the young Beauford, who was becoming increasingly extroverted and creative; his brother Joseph said "Beauford could always strum on a ukulele and sing like mad and mimic with the best".

Branson encouraged the 23-year-old Delaney to leave Tennessee and move to Boston to study art. In Boston, Delaney became fascinated with art history, spending his days engrossed in local art museums and galleries, especially drawn to the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. It was also in Boston that Delaney first experienced early struggles with his mental health, especially grappling with his homosexuality, which increasingly made him more introverted than he had been as a teen.

By 1929, his artistic education complete, Delaney moved to New York to make his way as an artist. Arriving just after the stock market crash that set off the Great Depression, he struggled financially, but he was moved by the multitude of races and lifestyles he encountered there. He began to paint portraits and scenes of the cultural melting pot of Harlem, feeling an affinity with the minorities that gathered there.

Delaney supported himself with odd jobs, including a hotel bell hop and art teacher. Like many artists during the economic hard times, Delaney found support on the Federal Art Project, run by the Works Progress Administration. In 1935, he joined the mural project at the Harlem Hospital, which was headed by Charles Alston, and he sometimes participated in Alston's salons, where he met artists and writers such as Norman Lewis, Augusta Savage, Romare Bearden, Countee Cullen, and Richard Wright among others. Delaney had found his place among the innovators of the Harlem Renaissance. In Boston, Delaney had received a "crash course" in racial politics by many of the most cutting edge African-American activists of the time; including James Weldon Johnson, writer, diplomat and rights activist; William Monroe Trotter, founder of the National Equal Rights League; and Butler Wilson, Board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Upon his move to New York, this political sensibility was enriched by the writers, artists, activists, poets, singers and dancers who lived and worked in Harlem.

Delaney specifically made an incredibly intense impact upon key Harlem Renaissance writer and activist James Baldwin. Describing their initial 1940 meeting, Baldwin recounted, "A short brown man came to the door and looked at me. He had the most extraordinary eyes I'd ever seen. When he completed his instant X-ray of my brain, lungs, liver, heart, bowels and spinal column, he smiled and said, 'Come in,' and opened the door. He opened the door all right. Lord!"

Mature Period

As Delaney entered into his mature period, he became a well-established part of both Harlem and Greenwich Village, where he kept his studio. He was a minor celebrity and bohemian staple in both the gay and black communities, yet he kept these different parts of his life completely compartmentalised. On one hand, he mixed with flamboyant and sexually free Greenwich Village personalities including lifelong friend Henry Miller and Georgia O'Keeffe, as well as gallery owner Darthea Speyer. The flamboyant Speyer, who was crucial to rejuvenating Paris as a cultural centre, said of him: "For many years, the sparkle of his gaze shone around him and attracted a crowd of friends, fascinated by this strong, if silent, presence. It was not his discourse that captivated, but a light that emanated from him and permeated everyone." He also interacted with Georgia O'Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, and Stuart Davis and carried on conversations and experiments that influenced his move into a more modern style.

Delaney also became a respected elder of the Harlem Renaissance crowd. His intimate portraits from this period show his beliefs of love, respect and equality between all people. In this time he became a "spiritual father" to writer James Baldwin; a rare kindred spirit who was both African American and gay. Delaney's biographer David Leeming observes, '''He kept his life in compartments - sex with whites but not with blacks, sex with temporary acquaintances and not with friends, safe politics with most whites, strong race identification with blacks. . . . His black friends knew little of his white friends; his gay friends knew little of his straight ones.'' Those compartments ''gradually became voices that argued with each other and taunted their host.''

While socially Delaney's life was bifurcated, his art was similarly difficult to categorize. Like many Harlem Renaissance artists, Delaney was interested in African Art and how it might offer new guidance for contemporary art, but he was equally interested in the vibrant experiments with abstraction propelled by European influences. His thickly impastoed canvases celebrated the city landscape and the people who inhabited it.

Late Period

By the 1950s, Delaney was increasingly battling his inner demons. In 1951, writer Brooks Atkinson noted, "No one knows exactly how Beauford lives. Pegging away at a style of painting that few people understand or appreciate, he has disciplined himself, not only physically but spiritually, to live with a kind of personal magnetism in a barren world." While deeply appreciated within the small and marginal circles in New York, Delaney's personal struggles and being black and gay in a racist and homophobic society often isolated him from achieving more mainstream success.

In 1953, at the age of 52, Delaney left New York for Paris. He saw Paris as somewhere he could escape the pressures of America, and gain greater freedom, as Paris was a much friendlier place for African Americans at the time. It was also where his most loved painters had flourished: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Monet. While continuing with some figurative compositions in his already Impressionist influenced style, in Paris Delaney took his love of color and light to a new extreme, creating far more abstract works. These late abstract works, despite coinciding with the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s, came from a completely different standpoint: universal expression of the joys of inner light and color from a man who saw beauty in the world despite his inner suffering.

In Paris, Delaney continued his friendships with James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, who had also gone to Paris to escape the racism of the U.S. and to find greater freedom. It was here that Delaney became close friends with another influential visual artist, Lawrence Calcagno. A white, abstract landscape artist from Northern California, it was an unlikely pairing when the two met in Paris. Yet the two men grew to share a close artistic bond, tied by their shared belief in the spiritual nature of painting and abstraction. They also became close personal friends, writing hundreds of letters to each other over Delaney's later years, after Calcagno left Paris to return to America. In these letters, Delaney is at his most vulnerable and open, as he felt with a kindred spirit. Letter writing became an important source of comfort and communication for Delaney, in an almost spiritual manner. In 1959, he wrote: "Dear Larry, your wonderful [,] informative letter arrived today like a celestial sentinel[.] I had walked into Paris this morning... and here was your letter... It almost made me weak."


Sadly, just as his abstract work in Paris was gaining more prominence, in the 1960s Delaney's mental health problems and heavy drinking began to take their toll. Periods of lucidity would be interrupted with madness, paranoia, and hallucinations. He was pursued by the "voices of despair" which had plagued him all his life.

The assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King throughout the 1960s were a deep emotional blow to Delaney, and he was no longer able to be involved in civil rights work as much as he wished.

In 1972, to celebrate Henry Miller's 80th birthday in Paris, Miller invited a small group of friends to the American Cultural centre to exhibit their works. Many of Delaney's friends saw him for the first time in many years; he showed his late portraits of Jean Genet and of Miller himself. Delaney sat by his works, and as young people came by and praised them, he dispensed words of wisdom, saying: "You are planting a seed. Give it time...and that seed will mature and flower".

James Baldwin particularly began to worry about his friend, but despite his best efforts Beauford Delaney was eventually committed to St. Anne's Hospital for the Insane in Paris. In 1979, he passed away there. He was mourned by friends around the world. James Baldwin said of Delaney, "I do know that great art can only be created out of love, and that no greater lover has ever held a brush.''

The Legacy of Beauford Delaney

Throughout his life, Beauford Delaney was seen as an enigmatic, slightly unhinged but great genius of the alternative New York art scene. He was a minor celebrity and oddity in this intense circle; however, to the wider world, he remained relatively unknown. His artwork was neglected due to the unfashionability of his Impressionist influence, prejudices against gay African Americans, and his lifelong mental health issues.

However, in the 1980s, there was a revival of interest in his work. He began to be recognised for his great influence on other members of the Harlem Renaissance and Greenwich Village scene. Henry Miller had written extensively about him, publishing a 1945 book The Amazing and Invariable Beauford Delaney and said "[Beauford] is not just a friend, he is the friend, the one who gives his all... I have kept all his letters to me; they are jewels, every one of them, despite the poor grammar, the bad spelling and the mixed metaphors. They all breathe love, compassion and understanding. Never a word about his misfortunes." James Baldwin wrote, "He is a great painter, among the very greatest" and that he was "the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. In a warmer time, a less blasphemous place, he would have been recognised as my Master and I as his Pupil. He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion. An absolute integrity: I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken but I never saw him bow." While he may not have directly inspired his contemporaries in terms of style, he did so in spirit.

In 2009, an organisation set up by writer Monique Wells called "Les Amis de Beauford Delaney" raised money to preserve Delaney's grave at the Parisian Cemetery of Thiais and pay for a headstone. His legacy has now gone on to be influential to many young black and gay artists, most strikingly in the work of Chris Ofili. There, intimate portraits of a neglected but proud black community with gorgeous, swirling, vivid colors certainly owe a debt to this vastly undervalued artist.

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