Beauford Delaney was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1901. The son of a Methodist minister and a mother born in slavery, Beauford was an extrovert and drawn to art at a young age. His brother Joseph, who also became a celebrated artist, described their young creativity: “Those early years which Beauford and I enjoyed together I am sure shaped the direction of our lives as artists. We were constantly doing something with our hands – modelling with the very red Tennessee clay, also copying pictures. One distinct difference in Beauford and myself was his multi-talents. Beauford could always strum on a ukulele and sing like mad and could mimic with the best.”
As a teen, Beauford worked as a sign painter and was taken under the wing of prominent Knoxville painter, Lloyd Branson. He moved to Boston at age 23 to pursue an arts education before relocating to New York City in 1929 at the height of both the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression.
In New York “he painted colorful, engaging canvasses that captured scenes of the urban landscape…his works from that period express, in an American Modernist vein, not only the character of the city, but also his personal vision of equality, love, and respect among all people. Abandoning the precise realism of his early academic training, Delaney developed a lyrically expressive style that drew upon his love of musical rhythms and his improvisational use of color.”
In New York, Beauford befriended fellow artists, poets, and musicians. “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.” However, his life was highly compartmentalized – as a gay man, a Black man, and a Christian Southerner. The Smithsonian American Art Museum noted that “neither early success nor gracious spirit spared Delaney from the obscurity and poverty” that plagued most of his adult life.
At the age of 52, Beauford moved to Paris, France. Europe became his home for the remainder of his life. In Paris, Beauford’s art shifted from the figuration of his compositions to abstract expressionist studies of color and light.
“Delaney’s relationship with abstraction predated the notorious Abstract Expressionist movement, positioning him as a forerunner of one of the most important ideological and stylistic developments in twentieth-century American art. Although he chose not to identify himself with the movement, as the Abstract Expressionists began to gain notoriety in the late 1940s, Delaney’s abstract work increasingly gained attention.”
Delaney’s drive to continuously paint resulted in him using his raincoat when he was out of canvas, “Untitled, 1954” is an oil on raincoat fragment.
Beauford gradually succumbed to alcoholism and mental health problems before his death on March 26, 1979 in Paris. Author James Baldwin found in Beauford a “spiritual father” and mentor, and described the impact of Delaney on his life, saying 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.”
Today, Beauford Delaney’s works are in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Harvard University Art Museums, Art Institute of Chicago, Knoxville Museum of Art, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Newark Museum, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
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