Joseph Delaney was the younger brother of noted artist, Beauford Delaney. The youngest of 10 children, Joseph was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1904 and grew up in the heart of Knoxville’s “particularly sophisticated and educated black community.” Joseph shared a love of drawing with his elder brother, who both learned to draw on Sunday school cards at church and took art lessons with distinguished local artist Lloyd Branson.
He left his strict Methodist home at 18, and spent many years as an itinerant worker. In a self-published essay, Thirty-Six Years Exhibiting in the Washington Square Art Show, Delaney remembered his days on the road:
“My mind would go back to the days of the old B&O Baltimore and Ohio freight line somewhere between Parkersberg, Virginia and Athens, Ohio, in the hot summer under the stars at night, just riding, listening to the screech of the old car and the thick sound of a smoky engine slowly pulling around the winding curves.
Only one-hundred ten miles, but on a slow freight, the ride takes forever to come to a stop. I didn’t have anywhere to go, so it didn’t matter. Wandering youth, during those peaceful years of the early twenties, was a luxury.”
He made money working at whatever odd job was available but also by gambling and shooting pool. He also kept a visual journal of his travels drawing other hobos and the various episodes in their lives. In 1925 Delaney arrived in Chicago and stayed for three years working in nightclubs where he met jazz musicians such as Albert Ammons, Ma Rainey, Pete Johnson, and Big Joe Turner. He also signed up for a three-year stint in the Illinois National Guard.
At the age of 26, Joseph decided to follow in his brother’s footsteps and move to New York to be an artist. Joseph moved to New York City in 1930 and studied art at the Art Students League.
There he studied with regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton with a group of classmates that included Jackson Pollock. Benton stressed the traditional fundamentals of painting. His students studied the Renaissance masters, such as Botticelli, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Benton also insisted that his students paint solid and concrete American themes rather than the more abstract philosophical style popular in Europe.
Along with his brother, Joseph Delaney participated in the first Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit in 1931 and thereafter became a regular exhibitor; he was one of the first artists to offer portrait sketches made on-site during the annual event. Later in his career, Delaney would execute portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt, Eartha Kitt, Tallulah Bankhead, and Eubie Blake, among other notables.
Joseph write, “I have seen through the years artists set up easels, artists who didn’t have any experience in working on the spot and who didn’t have much potential to draw on. And I have watched some artists grow into good portrait artists after trial and error under the eyes of the impartial public who won’t spare you if you don’t deliver, but will give you a big hand and loud applause if you do a good job and keep you working.”
Joseph did assignments with the Works Progress Administration Artist Project as a part of his artistic career. He taught art to inner city children, collaborated on public murals, and did archival illustrations. He was named to the WPA’s prestigious Easel Painting Division in 1943, the same year he embarked on a Julius Rosenwald travel grant. This award funded six months of touring up and down the eastern seaboard, from New England to South Carolina. The conclusion of these travels coincided with the end of the WPA and forced Delaney to the welfare rolls.
Throughout his life, he was committed to opposing racial discrimination, and panoramic crowd scenes reveal Delaney’s deep concern for the lives of common people. The city—its activity, vitality, and, most significantly, its people—became his muse. His picaresque sketches were often executed in ballpoint ink on pocket-sized sketchpads for later development as finished studio pieces. With an emphasis on human connection, these canvases typically feature racially diverse figures depicted in a caricatural style—exaggerated forms that ignore anatomical scale and perspective in a cartoonish manner. Delaney spent 56 years painting portraits, figure studies, and lively scenes of urban life in lower Manhattan.
Joseph returned to Knoxville in 1986 to become the first artist-in-residence at the University of Tennessee until his death in 1991.
Delaney, who described himself as a realist and “conservative conventionalist,” participated in more than thirty exhibitions during his lifetime. Three of the artist’s oil paintings were selected for inclusion in the landmark 1969 exhibit, Invisible Americans: Black Artists of the 1930s, held at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Of his own experience as an African American artist, Delaney wrote that “in the fine arts field, the mountain is not coming to Mohammed. . . . Many a black Daniel Boone is clearing rugged terrain and thick swamps and jagged cliff-sides with palette and brush.”
He was also represented in important surveys of black art sponsored by Princeton University, the Brooklyn Museum, and Bellevue Art Museum, as well as the major 1982 exhibition, Parades: Paintings and Drawings of New York City Crowd Scenes; his 1943 canvas Penn Station at War Time toured with the Smithsonian-sponsored exhibition, African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond. Joseph Delaney’s works can be found in the nation’s premier museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Chicago Art Institute, and National Academy of Design among others.
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