Born in 1901 in Knoxville, Tennessee, Beauford Delaney was one of ten children born to John Samuel Delaney, a Methodist Episcopal minister, and his wife Delia, who had been born into slavery. Delia, a quilter and singer, encouraged the youthful artistic interests of Beauford and his brother Joseph Delaney. While working as a shoeshine boy, Beauford’s drawings came to the attention of the well known Knoxville artist, Lloyd Branson, who operated a local art school which attracted many promising artists, including Catherine Wiley. Branson tutored Delaney for several years; Delaney’s work from that young period includes representational landscapes and portraits.
In 1923, Branson, firmly convinced of Delaney’s potential, facilitated and financed Delaney’s move to Boston for further education. There, Delaney studied at several institutions and regularly availed himself of the city’s art collections, all the while working as a janitor. A 1926 retrospective exhibition of Claude Monet’s work proved a major influence in Delaney’s approach to color and light.
Eager to advance his career and intrigued by the budding Harlem Renaissance, Delaney moved to New York, arriving there in early November 1929, only days after the stock market crash that marked the beginning of the Great Depression. His first artistic pursuits in the city centered on pastel portraits of notable African Americans, as well as genre scenes of Harlem. By 1931, Delaney was enrolled at the Art Students League, where he studied under John Sloan, Thomas Hart Benton, and Stuart Davis (and alongside Jackson Pollock and Charles Alston). It was in this rich creative environment that he began to explore a more modernist aesthetic. Deeply interested in music and poetry, Delaney, by then living in Greenwich Village, immersed himself in that community’s thriving arts scene and formed close friendships with James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Al Hirshfield. Despite his own race-neutral approach to culture and community, Life magazine featured Delaney in a 1938 issue as a laudable example of an accomplished “Negro” artist.
Delaney’s New York art from the 1940s and early 1950s includes both realist works and abstract forms. This was a period of relative stability for Delaney and included exhibitions at New York galleries and two fellowships to the Yaddo art colony. Despite these successes, however, the perennially impoverished artist was also regularly confronted by prejudice against his race and sexual orientation, ranging from professional biases to a gang beating.
At the age of fifty-one and eager for new opportunities in his personal and professional pursuits, Delaney left New York for Paris, arriving there in late summer 1953. Though he intended to stay only a month, he remained in Paris for twenty-six years until his death. He quickly became a part of the expatriate artistic community and thrilled to the cultural tenor of the city. By 1954, the artist had made a dramatic aesthetic shift, fully embracing Abstract Expressionism. Yet, despite select solo and group shows in Paris and the United States, Delaney remained desperately poor and once famously cut up his only raincoat to use as a canvas. It was toward the end of this decade that Delaney’s alcoholism and paranoia became problematic, including one suicide attempt and repeated hospitalization.
Delaney’s most coveted canvases date to the late 1950s and 1960s. Characterized by fluid brush strokes, these fully abstracted works are explorations of saturated color and strong texture. Whether executed in gouache or oil, in vibrant hues or muted tones, these paintings exude light. Delaney’s signature use of yellow—he described the shade as “the color of his sacred light” and representational of a “higher power”—expresses a joy that seems to contradict his life story and reflect a resolve to resist an inner darkness. In 1963, he wrote these hopeful lines to his friend, the author Henry Miller: “I pray for the courage to keep struggling to express in color the substance of what life is directing. The need in the world for beauty, harmony, good confidence, brotherhood, sunlight, music, humanity . . . was never so urgent. The creative life is holy.”
By the late 1960s, Beauford Delaney was increasingly diminished by emotional instability and dementia. In 1975, he was hospitalized at St. Anne’s mental institution in Paris and died there in 1979, shortly after his first major retrospective, an exhibition of sixty-seven works held at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1978. Delaney’s work is represented in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Detroit Institute of Arts, High Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, National Portrait Gallery, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Whitney Museum of American Art, among many other notable institutions.