Biography of Beauford Delaney
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!"
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.
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.
Content compiled and written by Eve MacNeill
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Content compiled and written by Eve MacNeill
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
First published on 15 Dec 2018. Updated and modified regularly