Though Joseph Delaney’s days began and ended in Knoxville, Tennessee, his artistic legacy was shaped by the half-century he spent living in New York City. The city—its activity, vitality, and, most significantly, its people—became his muse. A poet and essayist as well as painter, Delaney was enthralled with the urban experience, a delight that defined his expressive canvases.
The son of a Methodist minister, Joseph—along with his older brother, the modernist artist and bon vivant Beauford Delaney—grew up in the heart of Knoxville. During lengthy Sunday sermons, Joseph and Beauford whiled away the hours by drawing. A poor student, Delaney dropped out of school in the ninth grade, held a series of menial jobs, and for a number of years led a wanton life, a period he later described as “over-living.” He moved to New York in 1930, where Beauford had become a Greenwich Village celebrity. Having nurtured his artistic passion during his vagrant days, Joseph immediately enrolled at the Art Students League, studying there full time through 1933.
Over the next three decades, Delaney created what would become his signature works: urban scenes that celebrate the landmarks and liveliness of the city. 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. Several such works, including Central Park Skating, have been “identified as Delaney’s ‘postcard paintings.’” Described as “upbeat, promotional, and campy,” these genre paintings are “sentimental in their allusions to child-rearing and family interaction.” In Central Park Skating, novice and skilled skaters circle the rink, set against a backdrop of Beaux-Arts Fifth Avenue hotels, in a scene reminiscent of Currier and Ives prints of an earlier generation.
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.” Today, 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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