Delaney, Beauford 1901–1979
Beauford Delaney 1901–1979
Beauford Delaney, one of the foremost American expatriate painters of the twentieth century and friend to such prominent artistic figures as James Baldwin, Georgia O’Keefe, and Henry Miller, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on December 30, 1901. He was the eighth of ten children in the family, though only four survived into adulthood. Delaney’s mother Delia Johnson Delaney was born a slave in Richmond, Virginia in 1865. She was a talented quilt maker and took in laundry and cleaned houses for a living. Delaney’s father John Samuel Delaney came from a sharecropping family and served as a Methodist preacher and barber. The family enjoyed life in Knoxville, but soon moved to Jefferson City where Delaney’s father served as pastor to a poor and rural black community. Since the position came with no salary the whole family was involved in working to support themselves and the fledgling church. Despite the lack of free time Delaney’s mother encouraged Beauford and his brother Joe to draw scenes from the family Bible. In 1915 the family moved back to Knoxville so that Delaney’s father could take on the pastor’s position at the church where he had earlier been assistant pastor. By this time only Beauford and his brother Joe were at home and soon after Joe was sent to a private school because he had behavioral problems and needed discipline.
If Joe was somewhat wild as a boy, Beauford was just the opposite. He was an excellent student and at the age of 14 got a job cleaning tables after school at the Vine Street Cafe and also worked shining shoes. His first commissioned painting was for his boss at the shoe shine place. Delaney was supposed to paint a seascape in oil though he had never seen the sea nor worked in oil before. The painting so impressed his first patron that he introduced Delaney to a local impressionist painter named Lloyd Branson. Branson, a white man who admired the Confederacy, recognized the talent of the 14-year-old artist and agreed to give him art lessons in exchange for Delaney serving as his assistant. Delaney learned to work in pastels, oils, and watercolors and also received encouragement and financial help from Branson.
The Delaneys’ life was fairly tranquil at this time in Knoxville until April 30, 1919 when John suffered a heart attack and died. In addition to this personal tragedy for Beauford there was a race riot in the city that same year which spoiled a relatively progressive atmosphere between the races in Knoxville. Delaney had been increasingly curious about the outside world and these two events seemed to give him the impetuous to explore. In September of 1923, with the encouragement and financial help of Branson, Delaney departed for Boston to pursue his dream of becoming an artist.
Delaney arrived in Boston with a few letters of introduction
At a Glance…
Born Beauford Delaney, December 30, 1901 in Knoxville, Tennessee; died on March 29, 1979 in Paris, France; son of John Samuel Delaney (a Methodist minister) and Delta Johnson Delaney; Education: Informally enrolled at several art schools in Boston including the Copely Society, the South Boston School of Art, and the Lowell Institute.
Career: Painted his first commissioned work at the age of 14; received first prize in his first New York show at the Whitney Studio Gallery, 1929; first one-man show at the New York Public Library, 1930; first fully expressionists show at New York’s Artist’s Gallery, 1948; moved to Paris, France, 1953; first Paris exhibitions, 1954; first Parisian solo show at the Galerie Paul Facchetti, 1961; major retrospective show at the American Cultural Center, 1969; last major show while living at the Studio Museum in Harlem, 1978.
Awards: Received a $5,000 grant from the National Council of the Arts, 1968.
and a small amount of money Branson had given him. One of the first families he called on was the white, liberal, quasi-aristocratic Bryants. Through the Bryants Delaney was introduced in salons all over the city to the most influential people of liberal Boston society. This group was known in the 1920s as the Boston Radicals and included Edna St. Vincent Millay and a young Countee Cullen.
Despite the rich intellectual life Delaney was absorbing, he found that he still needed money. He found a job at Western Union working the midnight shift as a janitor. He seemed to live several different lives—a faceless janitor, a quiet and polite observer of elite Boston society, and a third self which he had yet to come to terms with—his homosexuality. It was also as a young man in Boston that Delaney began to hear voices in his head, a condition which would plague him for the rest of his life. As a respite from his own inner turmoil he turned to art. He was enrolled informally in several art schools because he was not allowed to register as a regular student because of his race. He took classes at the Copely Society, the South Boston School of Art, and the Lowell Institute. He also copied works at the Massachusetts Normal Art School and at different Boston museums. By the spring of 1929 when he left Boston he was no longer a “self-taught” artist. He had a solid classical background with influences from impressionists such as Claude Monet and John Springer Sargent. In addition he was introduced to activist politics which were some of the most radical racial ideas of his time.
Delaney arrived in Harlem in November of 1929 at the end of its famed “Renaissance” period. Some of the greatest African American minds of the time were active in Harlem—Cullen, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey. Though the academic world of New York soared, the reality of arriving there knowing no one was somewhat more down to earth. On his first day in New York, Delaney was robbed of all his possessions and that night, while sleeping on a park bench, he had his shoes stolen. Through an artist contact he was able to get a job as a bellhop at the Grand Hotel and rent a small room. During his time off, he painted. He again gained entry into the elite class by painting portraits, though he also painted the people on the streets of Harlem. It was in these portraits for which he would receive no money that he began to experiment distorting faces and drawing more blurred images. It was this experimentation that led to paintings such as “Can Fire in the Park,” which now hangs in the National Museum of American Art (NMAA). The NMAA Research Bulletin described the painting: “In its integration of brilliant color, bold patterning, rhythmic lines, and tactile surfaces, the work hovers between representation and abstraction.”
Through his work in portraits, Delaney was invited to enter a show at the Whitney Studio Gallery, which he won. His work so impressed the owners, they hired him at the gallery. He then moved from Harlem to Greenwich Village. He followed his success at the Whitney with a one-man show at the New York Public Library and joined the Art Students’ League, which included such influential artists as Don Freeman, Jackson Pollock, Charles Alston, and in November of 1930, his brother Joe. He and his brother differed in their approaches to art and life and rarely spoke about art though Joe did follow his brother to Greenwich Village in 1931. After his early success Delaney quit his job at the Whitney to devote himself to his art.
In the mid-thirties Delaney seemed to live separate lives. One life he lived with his African American artists and friends, and he lived the other with his white, bohemian, and largely homosexual friends. With his fellow black artists he was serious and committed as he shared the tribulations of being an artist of color in the midst of the Depression. With his white friends he could be openly gay and enjoyed their care-free outlook on life as this circle of friends often included young men from wealthy families who helped support him. His two worlds never interacted. Dante Pavone was one of Delaney’s white Bohemian friends with whom he would have a relationship from 1936 to 1953. Pavone was one of the painter’s main subjects of this time period. Though Delaney was in love with Pavone, the two never had a physical relationship.
After a financially difficult summer of 1938 Delaney had a major breakthrough in the fall. He had two one-man shows and was featured in Life Magazine. In 1941 Delaney made another artistic stride in a one-man show at the Vendóme Gallery. These new paintings were more modern, designed not to depict the likeness of the subject but to produce a particular compositional effect. His work was favorably reviewed by The New York Times and Art Digest. The Vendóme show also presented a painting of nude white women and another called “Dark Rapture” which featured a 16-year-old James Baldwin with whom Delaney would remain friends for the rest of his life. Delaney saw much of himself in the young Baldwin who was also the son of a preacher struggling to find his own sexual identity. Delaney introduced him to jazz and classical music, the arts, and the New York intellectual scene.
Throughout the 1940s Delaney continued to battle psychological problems, suffered through grinding poverty, and in 1942 was the victim of a racist and homophobic gang and was badly beaten. Despite his physical and emotional difficulties, he continued to progress in his art moving fully into the modernist tradition. His 1945 “Portrait of James Baldwin,” which the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired in February of 1998, showed him moving more and more towards abstract expressionism. In 1945 Henry Miller published his essay “The Amazing and Invariable Beauford De Laney” and he became a Greenwich Village institution, albeit an eccentric one. In 1948 he had a solo exhibit at the Artists Gallery which was fully expressionist for which he was hailed by The New York Times and Art News. In the late forties and early fifties he had several one-man shows at the Roko Gallery, but in 1953 he had his final show in New York. His thoughts were turning to Paris, where all the great modernist painters worked. He made up his mind to visit the city and after a quick stay with his family in Knoxville, he embarked for Paris on August 28, 1953. He left his apartment and his studio with all his paintings intact believing he was only going to be gone for a short time, but he would never see New York again.
Delaney found that he enjoyed Paris, though he spoke almost no French. There was little obvious racism and he was able to meet like-minded Americans in the cafes to discuss art and society. He even met Baldwin again by chance and though he intended to return to New York, he settled in France more solidly. In many ways Baldwin mentored Delaney in Paris as he had mentored the young writer in New York introducing Delaney to friends and taking him to night clubs and gay bars. Delaney stayed in Paris through the winter of 1953 painting almost continuously (and almost totally in the abstract) to keep the voices in his head at bay. He survived on small donations from his friends back in the United States. He had his first exhibitions in the summer of 1954 at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles Musée d’Art Moderne and the Ninth Salon at the Musée des Beaux Arts. He continued to appear in exhibitions throughout the late fifties and though he would receive critical acclaim, he sold few paintings.
In the spring of 1955 Delaney showed his paintings in Madrid, Spain. In 1956 he appeared in a show of “Abstract American” artists which was exhibited in Paris and Iserholn, Germany. In May he had his first solo show in Europe. In 1961 Delaney had a major exhibition at the Galerie Paul Facchetti in Paris, though only two paintings sold. Personally this period of Delaney’s life was full of turmoil. Though he appeared calm on the outside, his inner voices were tormenting him. After moving in with Baldwin in 1955 the two argued and Delaney moved out. The two quickly repaired the rift, and Delaney was sad and lonely whenever Baldwin was gone—which was quite often.
Delaney’s mental and emotional problems became apparent during a trip to Greece in 1961. He began to hallucinate that people were trying to rob and murder him. On the boat from Italy to Greece he threw his overcoat which contained his wallet and passport over the side of the boat. He then jumped over the other side into the sea. He was soon discovered by a local fisherman cold and half-drowned. After attempting suicide in a hotel, he was put in a sanitarium. A friend brought him to a clinic where it was found that he had kidney and liver problems probably brought on by excessive drinking. Friends finally insisted that he see a psychiatrist who diagnosed acute paranoid delusions which were aggravated by his alcoholism. He checked into a clinic at Nogent where he spent his sixtieth birthday alone.
Delaney appeared to improve as he slowed his drinking and was put on medication to aid in quieting the voices. He moved to Rue Vercingétorix and began a fruitful part of his career. He was helped by his friend and patron Madame du Closel who also paid his rent from 1962 to 1975 with the occasional painting as compensation. Delaney was moved by Baldwin’s descriptions of the civil rights battles in the United States and began a series of Rosa Parks paintings. In 1964 he held an exhibition in Copenhagen and in the fall at Farleigh Dickinson University. Delaney also had a one-man show of portraits and abstractions at the Galerie Lambert in Paris.
In the late sixties he balanced a growing notoriety and success with the struggle to keep his sanity. He had several shows in 1966 and 1967 including one at the American Embassy. The Embassy bought some of his paintings and hung them there. He also traveled to northern France, Venice, and Istanbul to be with Baldwin. In 1968 Delaney was awarded $5,000 by the National Council of the Arts in December. In March of 1969 he had a retrospective show at the American Cultural Center.
Through all of these professional high points and honors, Delaney suffered emotionally, especially when he drank. The murder of Martin Luther King Jr., sent him into a depression. During the Paris riots of 1968 he was wandering the streets dazed and disoriented. He was also having trouble with his memory. He gave much of his $5,000 grant to people who would come around him when he had money because he thought nothing of giving it all away. He made a short Christmas visit to Knoxville in 1969. His family was so distressed about his health that they urged him to stay, but he returned to France in January of 1970.
In the 1970s Delaney’s mental condition became more unstable. He would forget or refuse to take his medication or start to drink again. He was unable to participate in a University of Tennessee exhibit that was created for him and his brother Joe. Ironically, as his health started to falter, his renown as a painter was growing. He had a painting at the Smithsonian Institute and was featured in several exhibitions as well as in Jet and Playboy magazines. In February of 1972 Delaney had a major show at the Speyer Gallery in Paris with tributes written by Henry Miller, James Jones, and Georgia O’Keefe. After undergoing a hernia operation and a short time of improvement, his health took a turn for the worse. Many of his friends thought he was suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. He was becoming more forgetful, careless, and sloppy in appearance and inviting homeless people into his apartment where they would eventually stay and abuse his real friends who would stop by.
In the spring of 1975 Delaney was found sick and passed out in the street. Baldwin had himself declared responsible for his old friend’s welfare and soon thereafter Delaney was committed to the St. Anne’s Hospital for the Insane. Baldwin tried to get Delaney’s affairs in order, but when he went to the painter’s apartment he found it cleaned out with two angry homeless men residing there with whom he got into a fist fight. While he lay in the hospital in Paris, Delaney had the most important exhibition of his career back in New York in April of 1978. The Exxon Corporation and the National Endowment for the Arts sponsored a show of his at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The show, which highlighted his Paris work, was well received. But seemingly as ever, professional success was overshadowed by personal tragedy as his health was becoming more and more fragile. By the time of the exhibition he was not able to recognize anyone and slipped in and out of consciousness. Beauford Delaney died on March 29, 1979.
Death did not stop the rising acknowledgment of Delaney’s mastery. His work was still being exhibited in places such as the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in the late 1990s. In Jabari Asim’s article on Delaney’s biography in the Washington Post, the reviewer offers some viewpoints on the twentieth century master: “To James Baldwin he was ‘a cross between Br’er Rabbit and Saint Francis of Assisi.’ To Henry Miller he was ‘the summum and optimum of all the solar energies and radiances combined.’ To most scholars and followers of African American art, Beau-ford Delaney was one of the most gifted men ever to wield a brush.”
Leeming, David. Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney Oxford University Press: NY, 1998.
Information also found at the following websites: http//www.artincontext.com/listings/pages/artist/g/3en39z9g/exhib.htm.
—Michael J. Watkins
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