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Beauford Delaney Photo

Beauford Delaney

American Painter

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."
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Beauford Delaney Signature
"Keep the faith and trust in so far as possible. Love humility and don't mind the insinuations that cause sorrow...and loneliness and limitations. We learn self-reliance and to hear the voice of God, too...and how to...not break but bend gently. Learning to love is learning to suffer deeply and with quietness."
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Beauford Delaney Signature
"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"
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"The light inscrutable, eternal, serene, wordless, yet sovereign, moving yet still including all things, silencing all things."
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Beauford Delaney Signature
"I came to peep but there was a lot to peep at."
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Beauford Delaney Signature

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.


  • 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.

Biography of Beauford Delaney

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...."

Important Art by Beauford Delaney

Progression of Art

The Burning Bush

This painting is one of Delaney's most prominent early works, and indicative of the strong impression that biblical imagery made on the artist as a young man. In this small piece, a swirling towering inferno divides a bright blue sky. Earthy greens, browns, purples, and oranges represent an acrid desert landscape and the bush fire which bursts from it. Critics have described this painting as a statement of Delaney's intentions as a modernist painter, departing from a realist approach to embrace a more evocative and emotional style which went on to characterise his life's work. Stylistically, this painting is reminiscent of Post-Impressionist artists such as Paul Gaugin, not only in the earthy color palette but also in Gauguin's ideas of the spiritual and the "primitive" in nature.

The Burning Bush is also highly significant in terms of the subject matter. Harlem Renaissance painters and writers shared the tendency to draw on spiritual hymns and the powerful influence of the Church as an important part of their culture. While Delaney often resisted being pigeonholed as a "Negro" artist, the term used at the time, he did wish to work with the other Harlem Renaissance artists, such as Hale Woodruff, to celebrate and represent African American heritage. Therefore, the burning bush represents the towering, all mighty presence of the force of God in his life.

Oil on paperboard - Newark Museum, Newark, NJ


Can Fire in the Park

In Can Fire in the Park, a group of men huddle together over an open fire in a New York park. While the painting is representational, it is striking in its use of colors and abstracted forms. The mix of streetlights, moonlight, and the can fire produce waves and puddles of light shown in yellow, purple, and blue. This use of color produces a scene which is both moody and vibrant at the same time.

This painting is typical of Delaney's work in New York in the 1940s when he focused on cityscapes representing the Harlem and Greenwich Village communities he inhabited. While the huddled characters exude warmth and inclusiveness, they also seem isolated, just as Delaney felt himself throughout most of his life. It is described by the Smithsonian American Art Museum as a "disturbingly contemporary vignette [which] conveys a legacy of deprivation linked not only to the Depression years after 1929 but also to the longstanding disenfranchisement of black Americans, portrayed here as social outcasts...." Delaney's combined sense of celebration and melancholy in his portrayals of the African American community contribute a profound statement to the Harlem Renaissance.

Oil on canvas - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC


Jazz Quartet

Delaney's love of musical rhythms is on full demonstration in his 1946 painting Jazz Quartet. A group of jazz musicians perform in a colorfully decorated interior. The scene is a riot of blues, yellows, greens and blues. While at first glance this setting may seem like a Harlem jazz club or bar, the Star of David in the upper left hand corner actually shows it to be an old synagogue. Little background is known about the exact setting which inspired the piece, but there was a small but prominent Jewish African American community in New York in the 1940s that Delaney may have encountered.

This attraction to the internal vibrancy of an outcast or fringe community is typical of Delaney's subjects. Delaney loved meeting people of different cultural backgrounds and felt an innate sympathy, as a gay African American man, towards minority groups. Such sympathy came easy to a man so full of cultural contradictions: black, but mixed in white circles; gay, but secretive about it; American, but full of European influences. In fact, this painting, while celebrating the pure vibrancy of multi-sensory life in New York City, hearken to the styles of French artists like Cézanne and Matisse. In the end, Delaney seems to be telling us to forget these taxonomies and instead enjoy the jubilation of jazz, which he described as "warm, vibrant, and conducive to dreaming and romantic musing."

Oil on canvas - Collection of Burt and Patricia Reinfrank, Paris


Portrait of James Baldwin

The relationship between James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney was one of the most important and intimate of Delaney's life, both in New York and then in Paris, where they both settled. The elder and the younger artists fed off of each other's creativity. Baldwin recalled, "I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, 'Look.' I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, 'Look again,' which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can't explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you've had that experience, you see differently."

This 1955 portrait of Baldwin is one of many that Delaney painted. It demonstrates the way in which, in many ways, these two men were kindred spirits; both were African American, gay artists struggling in a racist and homophobic society. In this portrait, the intimacy between the two men is obvious. Baldwin looks touchingly young and vulnerable, with exaggerated large eyes and long facial features and limbs. His clothes are richly colored and soft, and his figure is surrounded by abstract blocks of soft pastel colors, radiating out from the man and giving the impression that Baldwin literally radiates warm light. The painting is an illustration of one artist's eye revelling in another's.

Collection of Halley K Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, New York



In the 1950s while in Paris, Delaney began to experiment with abstraction. In this Untitled painting we see thick spirals and eddies of white and yellow paint enmeshed with strokes of blue and pink. Recalling the sumptuousness and joyousness of Rococo painting, the surface teems with energy and vitality. Art critic Joseph Nechvatal describes the painting in poetic terms, "Untitled evokes bright summertime diffraction, with balmy curvilinear swirls passing through wisps of cool blue air. The whiplashing thick juicy lines also disposed me to feelings of ecstatic writhing eels almost fin-de-siècle Art Nouveau in mood. It has a quality of heightened awareness, of focused openness, and expected connectivity...."

Reveling in his new found freedoms in France, one senses that Delaney channeled those freedoms into his artistic process, throwing off the years of figurative work. He never lost sight, though, of the modern European artists that were so important to him. One certainly feels the influence of Monet's late water lily paintings, but one also feels that Delaney is not trying to capture an objective, phenomenal light like the Impressionists but something more spiritual, more transcendent. The rising crescendo of the central, swirling column also evoke the rhythms of jazz, another important touchstone for Delaney.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald

This 1968 portrait is one of Delaney's latest pieces, just 7 years before he was permanently hospitalised in a mental asylum. It combines Delaney's explorations of abstraction with his avowed interest in portraiture. The face of African American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald emerges out of a plane of soft yellows, peaches, and greys. Her visage hovers and vibrates with energy. Yellow, for Delaney, was a spiritual color representing healing, light, and redemption.

Poet Soujourner Ahebe writes, "[I]t is this dynamism of Fitzgerald's voice and message that Delaney wished to capture in his painting of her. His use of the color yellow is not solely about an obsession with light, but also an opportunity to look into the internal landscape of a person, and he takes full advantage of this opportunity with Ella." Delaney's portraits always strived to capture the inner essence of his sitters, their "inner light." This portrait of Ella Fitzgerald is a celebration of her beautiful voice and spirit of creativity, freedom, expression; everything that Delaney as a fellow African American artist in Paris hoped to find. The freedom that he found within this jazz and art community in Paris was a shining light, despite the struggles that marked the end of his life.

Oil on canvas - SCAD Museum of Modern Art, Savannah, Georgia

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Beauford Delaney
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Henry Miller
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    James Baldwin
Friends & Personal Connections
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    James Baldwin
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Beauford Delaney

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Content compiled and written by Eve MacNeill

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Beauford Delaney Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Eve MacNeill
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 15 Dec 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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