The Daily Agenda for Sunday, December 30
December 30th, 2012
Beauford Delaney: 1901. His mother had been born into slavery and never learned to read or write. Because of her experiences, and in keeping with the family’s hard-fought position of respectability in Knoxville where his father was a Methodist minister, the values of dignity, education and a keen awareness of injustices were paramount in the Delaney household. Beauford and his younger brother, Joseph, developed an interest in art at an early age, when they drew copies of pictures they saw on Sunday school cards and the family Bible. As a teenager, Beauford got a job at a local sign company, where his work was noticed by Lloyd Branson, Knoxville’s best known artist. Delaney became Branson’s apprentice and, with Branson’s backing, moved to Boston to study art in 1924. His escape from the Jim Crow south opened up a huge world, where he learned the essentials of painting techniques, was first exposed to the black activist politics, and experienced his first intimate encounter with another young man.
By 1929, Beauford used up Boston and moved to Harlem, which coincided with the great artistic and political flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance. Despite being penniless during the early crushing years of the Great Depression, Delaney found an affinity with the “multiple of people of all races [who] spend every night of their lives in parks and cafes.” As he wrote in his journal, their courage inspired him to believe that “somehow, someway there was something I could manage if only with some stronger force of will I could find the courage to surmount the terror and fear of this immense city and accept everything insofar as possible with some calm and determination.”
That calm and determination became the subject of some of his greatest works. Delaney eventually found work here and there — as a bellhop, telephone operator, doorman, janitor — while also finding, slowly, an audience for his paintings. He rubbed shoulders Georgia O’Keefe and Henry Miller, and became close friends with author James Baldwin (see Aug 2), and yet he remained an isolated individual, presenting carefully crafted faces to the people he encountered depending on where he was. To his neighbors in Greenwich Village, where his studio was, he was part of a larger gay (and mostly white) circle of friends; in Harlem, he kept his other life hidden. The decidedly macho world of modernist and impressionist art in New York undoubtedly added to his isolation. Those who knew him saw an introverted and private person, one who had apparently never formed any lasting romantic relationships.
In 1953, Delaney moved to Paris where he found a greater sense of freedom in an already well-established expatriate community of ex-patriate African-American artists. His paintings shifted from the figurative images of his New York period to more of an abstract impressionist exploration of color and light. But by 1961, his mental and physical health began to deteriorate, problems which were compounded by continuing poverty, hunger, and heavy drinking. Baldwin remembered, “He has been starving and working all of his life – in Tennessee, in Boston, in New York, and now in Paris. He has been menaced more than any other man I know by his social circumstances and also by all the emotional and psychological stratagems he has been forced to use to survive; and, more than any other man I know, he has transcended both the inner and outer darkness.”
Delaney returned briefly to the U.S. in 1969 to visit family, but he was dogged by paranoia and hallucinations. He returned to Paris in 1970 and tried to resume working, but it became increasingly clear to his friends that he was no longer capable of living independently. In 1975, he was hospitalized, then committed to St. Anne’s Hospital for the Insane. He died there in 1979, and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Denaley’s work was mostly forgotten through much of the 1970s and 1980s, despite his influence on fellow artists. In 1986, Baldwin wrote that Delaney 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.”