Beauford Delaney, Self-portrait, 1944. Photo: Estate of Beauford Delaney by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
Beauford Delaney was an American Harlem Renaissance painter known for his colorful Modernist compositions and distinctive approach to figuration. One of the most important African-American artists of the early 20th century, he often painted New York street scenes, lively scenes in jazz clubs, and portraits of prominent black figures like James Baldwin and W.E.B. Du Bois. Can Fire in the Park (1946) is one of his most iconic images, movingly capturing a common occurrence in Depression-era New York life. In addition to his representational work, Delaney also painted abstractly, noting that “the abstraction, ostensibly, is simply for me the penetration of something that is more profound in many ways than the rigidity of a form,” he explained. “A form if it breaths some, if it has some enigma to it, it is also the enigma that is the abstract, I would think.” Born on December 30, 1901 in Knoxville, TN as one of 10 children, he worked as sign-post painter as a teenager before going on to study in Boston at the Massachusetts Normal School, the South Boston School of Art, and the Copley Society. After school, he moved to Harlem in New York, where he befriended fellow artists like Alfred Stieglitz and Stuart Davis, who introduced him to the work of Modernists like Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and others. He moved to Europe in 1953 but was unable to find the same success he had previously had in New York, and gradually succumbed to alcoholism and mental health problems before his death on March 26, 1979 in Paris, France. Today, Delaney’s works are in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others.
Fame, at least lasting fame — the your-work-goes-down-in-history kind, often accompanied by fat royalty payments — is a club that thinks of itself as an unbiased meritocracy, blind to everything but aesthetic innovation and popular success. It’s never quite worked out that way. When we look at the past, we still see generations of great talents who never quite got their due critically or commercially, many of them left relatively unsung. In this ongoing series, our critics pick artists they feel remain underappreciated and tell their stories and sing their praises.
“He is amazing … this Beauford,” the novelist Henry Miller wrote of his lifelong friend Beauford Delaney in a 1945 essay that helped make the painter (whom Miller called a “black monarch” capable of making “the great white world … grow smaller”) a legendary attraction in Greenwich Village. So much so that people often gathered outside Delaney’s building at 181 Greene Street, where he lived and worked on the top floor — a walk-up lit only by a wood-burning potbellied stove.
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1901, Delaney migrated north to Boston in 1923 to study art, then moved to New York in November 1929, days after the onset of the Great Depression. That first day in New York, he slept on a Union Square bench, where someone stole his shoes. The next morning, he set out on foot, in newly bought shoes, to walk uptown to Harlem. When he reached Central Park, he stopped because of his severely blistered feet.
Things had never been tougher for American artists — let alone black ones. Art schools didn’t take black artists, and independent-studio classes banned black artists from figure-drawing sessions with white models. Undaunted, Delaney began drawing at a midtown dance studio. Somehow, his career took off almost overnight. Four months after he arrived in New York, an article appeared in the New York Telegraph about portraits Delaney had done of dancers and society figures.
Currently, MoMA has “Composition 16”(1954–56) on view, a glowing bioluminescent yellow abstraction kitty-corner across the gallery from that other (until recently) missing modernist, Hilma af Klint. Both are in the company of de Kooning, Kline, and the other giants of mid-century painting.
He met and charmed everyone. A list of his friends and acquaintances includes Stuart Davis — his closest painter compatriot — W.E.B. Du Bois (whose portrait he did), Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Jacob Lawrence, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe (who did a portrait of him), Edward Steichen, Dorothy Norman, Anaïs Nin (who intimidated him), Jackson Pollock, and Jean Genet. His closest lifelong friend, however, was James Baldwin — who, while fleeing a strict father at 16, looked up Delaney in the Village. He later called the artist his “principal witness.” Delaney was a kind of surrogate nurturing father to the writer. Judging by his 1941 Dark Rapture (James Baldwin), a steamy nude portrait of the 16-year-old writer (as well as from subsequent Baldwin portraits over the decades), Delaney seems to have been in love with the lithe young man 22 years his junior.
In October 1938, more than a decade before Pollock graced the same pages, Life magazine featured Delaney, picturing him beatifically smiling at the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit. The caption read, “One of the most talented Negro painters.” Yet by the time he died in 1979, Delaney was alone, alcoholic, hallucinating, paranoid, and penniless in a Paris psychiatric hospital. What started as a great American story is now a near absence in the history of American art and an American Dream forestalled.
A 1941 portrait of James Baldwin by the artist Beauford Delaney. Photo: Beauford Delaney (1901–1979), Dark Rapture (James Baldwin), 1941, oil on Masonite, 34” x 28”, signed; © Estate of Beauford Delaney by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
I love his work — especially his highly colored, optically intense, dense figurative paintings. He is almost an exact contemporary of, and the New York counterpart to, another great painter-portraitist, an artist who captured the power and magic of being poor stylishly, who lived on the margins but eventually came to be recognized as a visionary: Alice Neel. Delaney should be regarded as such as well.
Through the 1930s and 1940s, while most American artists were either being fifth-rate Cubists, regionalists, or academics or desperately looking for ways around Picasso via Surrealism, Delaney made his own thoroughly contemporary way. In street and park scenes, still lifes, and portraits, he built upon the work of his good friend Davis, arriving at his own compact, flat fields of creamy, opaque color. His sense of visual, jigsawing geometry and strong, graphic distillation of structure is second only to Davis’s. Delaney’s work, however, has a much more human aura, atmosphere, and arc, almost to a mystical degree, seen only in Marsden Hartley.
So why has Delaney been disappeared from collective memory? Partly, it is the racial bias of art history, which, among other things, meant that even while he was celebrated, it was less as a painterly equal to his contemporaries than as some kind of Negro seer or spiritual black Buddha. And in 1953, at the age of 51, Delaney left New York at perhaps the worst possible time. When other American artists, like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, were meeting and staying up late together (many of them open and uncloseted in their sexuality), Delaney was in Paris, where Baldwin had told him he could escape the long American night of racism. Baldwin was right, but Delaney struggled with French and became even more isolated. Twombly, Baldwin, and Miller returned often to New York, while Delaney never did. So he never got to rejoin the conversation.
By the 1960s, Delaney’s abstraction was more connected to the French Art Informel — a primarily European response to Abstract Expressionism — and his paintings, influenced as they were by Monet’s Water Lilies and Turner’s glowing color, had few of the ironic, systemic, direct qualities of Pop Art and minimalism. At a distance, Delaney’s work seemed passé — an artist painting in a void, outside the canon.
*This article appears in the January 6, 2020, issue of New York Magazine.
Beauford Delaney collection, Sc MG 59, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division
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Beauford Delaney was a painter, specializing in portraits. The Beauford Delaney collection consists of correspondence with colleagues, friends, gallery owners, and family members, as well as printed material documenting Delaney’s life in Paris.
Beauford Delaney was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, the third child of the Reverend Samuel Delaney and Delia Johnson Delaney. He attended the Knoxville Colored School and later studied art with an elderly Knoxville artist, who encouraged him to get further training. In 1924 Delaney went to Boston where he studied at the Massachusetts Normal School and the South Boston School of Art, and attended evening classes at the Copley Society.
Delaney went to New York in 1929, settling at first in Harlem. He painted society women and professional dancers at Billy Pierce’s dancing school on West 46th Street, which gained him a reputation as a portraitist. His first one-man show, which consisted of five pastels and ten charcoal drawings, was at the 135th Street Branch Library of the New York Public Library in 1930. During the same year three of his portraits were included in a group show at the Whitney Studio Galleries, the predecessor of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Delaney also taught part-time at a progressive school in Greenwich Village.
By the late 1940s Beauford Delaney had become a significant figure on the art scene. He illustrated “Unsung Americans Sung” (1944), a book of black musical tributes edited by W.C. Handy; he had a series of one-man shows in New York and Washington, D.C.; and he exhibited in group shows in a number of other cities. In 1945 he showed his first series of portraits of writers Henry Miller and James Baldwin, who would become his lifelong friends. In 1949 he began an association with the Roko Gallery in New York, where he exhibited annually until 1953.
In 1953 Delaney left New York with the intention of settling in Rome, but a visit to Paris turned into a permanent stay. He had two studios in Paris, the first in the suburbs of Clamart and the other in the Rue Vincingetorix. In Paris Delaney exhibited in one-man and group shows at the Gallerie Paul Fachetti (1960), the Centre Culturel Americain (1961 and 1972), the Galerie Lambert (1964), the Musee Galliera (1967) and the Galerie Darthea Speyer (1973), among other places. The latter was a major showing of a selection of his work from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s and the catalog contained tributes by James Jones, James Baldwin, and Georgia O’Keefe. Delaney also exhibited in England, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the United States. The Paris years saw the creation of several masterpieces including portraits of singer Marian Anderson and writer Jean Genet. During this period he also created a series of interiors and studies in watercolor.
After suffering two nervous breakdowns, Delaney was institutionalized, and died on March 26, 1979 at St. Ann’s Hospital in Paris. Delaney’s last one-man show in the United States was at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1978, inaugurating that museum’s Black Masters Series. Delaney’s work is in several private collections and in the collections of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Newark Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
SCOPE AND ARRANGEMENT
The Beauford Delaney collection consists of correspondence with colleagues, friends, gallery owners, and family members, as well a printed material documenting Delaney’s life in Paris. Biographical information is provided in statements Delaney authored, articles prepared by others for catalogs, and his obituary. Among the many friends, colleagues and art collectors with whom he maintained an active correspondence is James Baldwin, who wrote an introduction to a catalog for an exhibition of Delaney’s art at Paris’ Galerie Lambert in 1964. Other correspondents include artists Charles Boggs, Al Hirschfeld, John Franklin Koenig, and Ellis Wilson, authors James Jones and Henry Miller (who was also a water colorist), art historian Richard A. Long, and his friend Lynn Stone. Additional artists, painters, writers, gallery owners and musicians who corresponded with Delaney include Lawrence Calcagno, Cab Calloway, Elaine DeKooning, Palmer C. Hayden, and Darthea Speyer.
The letters discuss the style of painting of the correspondents, travels, purchase and exhibition of works, and personal matters. Numerous gallery announcements for art exhibits of Delaney’s and other artists’ works in Paris, New York and other cities demonstrate the extent of Delaney’s activities in the contemporary art world. The collection also contains a large number of picture postcards, some sent by friends, and gallery announcements. Family letters are from his brother and fellow artist, Joseph Delaney, and discuss his own work and impressions of Paris; his brother Emery (includes letters Delaney wrote to his brother, in addition to those received); and Delaney’s niece, Imogene.
Sale Date: December 13, 2019
SOURCE OF ACQUISITION
Donated by Daniel Richard in 1988.
Compiled by Victor N. Smythe, 1998. Finding aid edited and adapted to digital form by Kay Menick in 2016.
Paintings and art catalogs transferred to Art and Artifact Division. Photographs transferred to Photographs and Prints Division.
- Baldwin, James, 1924-1987 (creator)
- Boggs, Charles (creator)
- Calcagno, Lawrence, 1913-1993 (creator)
- Calloway, Cab, 1907-1994 (creator)
- De Kooning, Elaine (creator)
- Delaney, Joseph, 1904-1991 (creator)
- Haden, Palmer (creator)
- Hirschfeld, Al (creator)
- Jones, James, 1921-1977 (creator)
- Koenig, John Franklin, 1924-1987 (creator)
- Long, Richard A., 1927-2013 (creator)
- Miller, Henry, 1891-1980 (creator)
- Speyer, Dathea (creator)
- Stone, Lynn M. (creator)
- African American artists
- African American artists — France — Paris
- African American painters
- African American painters — France — Paris
- Artists — United States
- Expatriate painters
- Expatriate painters — France — Paris
- Painters — France — Paris
- Painting — United States
- Painting, American — 20th century — Exhibitions