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, D.C.
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