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Beauford Delaney

American Painter

Beauford Delaney Photo

Born: December 30, 1901 - Knoxville, Tennessee

Died: March 26, 1979 - Paris, France

"The abstraction, ostensibly, is simply for me the penetration of something that is more profound in many ways than rigidity of a form. A form if it breathes some, if it has some enigma to it, it is also the enigma that is the abstract, I would think."

Summary of Beauford Delaney

An often overlooked American artist, Beauford Delaney's artistic career straddled all of the most important art movements in the first half of the 20th century. He found himself among the heady intellectual and artistic milieu of the Harlem Renaissance as well as the modernist explorations of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz's circle, and he shared similar interests with burgeoning Abstract Expressionists. Delaney's output ranged from portraiture and city scenes to abstract compositions, but in all of his paintings he communicated the vitality and rhythms of his subjects.

Perhaps overlooked because of his move to Paris at a moment when the American art scene was consolidating or perhaps because of his life-long struggles with mental illness, Delaney's artistic profile did not really register in the narratives of American modernism, but his reputation has become important to younger artists such as Chris Ofili and Glenn Ligon.

Key Ideas

Never committed to a strict realism or abstraction, Delaney's best work hovers between the two tendencies. Reduced and simplified forms painted in high keyed colors created unique contributions to the development of modern American art.
Delaney's education and early inspirations lie in the examples of modern European masters such as van Gogh, Cézanne, and Matisse, and these he combined with an interest in traditional African art. These two strands allowed Delaney to move back and forth between the art communities in Harlem, then exploring their black heritage and identity, and Greenwich Village, then extrapolating and pushing European abstraction into new avenues.
Delaney's experience as a gay African American man in the United States caused him much anxiety throughout his life and contributed to his eventual mental deterioration. He tried to overcome these struggles and the compartmentalization through his painting process and his friendships with like-minded individuals.
One of Delaney's most enduring friendships throughout his adult life was with the younger writer James Baldwin. Baldwin variously described Delaney as a father figure and something of a midwife, who helped him find himself as a writer, and artist. Jazz and Blues would become important for both of them as they found their artistic voices.
Beauford Delaney Photo

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...."

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