Growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, Beauford Delaney was one of ten siblings. His parents were John Samuel Delaney, an itinerant Methodist Episcopal minister, and Delia Johnson Delaney, a native Virginian born into slavery. A quilter and singer remembered as “the much deferred-to matriarch of the Delaney household,” Delia encouraged Beauford and his brother Joseph Delaney’s early interests in art. While working as a shoeshine boy, Beauford’s drawings came to the attention of the well-known Knoxville painter Lloyd Branson, who operated a local art school that attracted many promising artists, including Catherine Wiley. Branson tutored Delaney for several years, during which the young artist produced representational landscapes and portraits.

In 1923, Branson—firmly convinced of his student’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. Eager to advance his career and intrigued by the budding Harlem Renaissance, Delaney relocated to New York in November 1929, arriving just days after the stock market crash that marked the beginning of the Great Depression. This inauspicious start aside, Delaney quickly set to work. His initial efforts resulted in pastel portraits of notable African Americans, as well as Harlem genre scenes. By 1931, he was enrolled at the Art Students League, studying under John Sloan, Thomas Hart Benton, and Stuart Davis, and alongside Jackson Pollock and Charles Alston. Living in Greenwich Village, he formed close friendships with James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Alfred Stieglitz, and Georgia O’Keeffe, among others. Despite his own race-neutral approach to culture and community, a 1938 Life magazine article cited Delaney as a laudable example of an accomplished “Negro” artist and included a photograph of him painting outdoors in Washington Square. Regardless of these advances and associations, the perennially impoverished Delaney repeatedly confronted prejudice against his race and sexual orientation, ranging from professional biases to a gang beating.

At the age of fifty-one, Delaney left New York for Paris in late summer 1953. Although he originally intended to visit for only a month, he remained until his death. He was welcomed into the expatriate cultural community and delighted in the city’s esprit. By 1954, Delaney had made a dramatic aesthetic shift, fully embracing Abstract Expressionism and participating in select solo and group shows on both sides of the Atlantic. Such successes did not improve Delaney’s financial situation, however, and he once famously cut up his only raincoat to use as a canvas.

Delaney’s most celebrated paintings date to the late 1950s and 1960s. Characterized by fluid brush strokes, these fully abstracted works are explorations of saturated color and strong texture. His signature use of yellow—which he described as “the color of his sacred light” and representational of a “higher power”—reveals a joy that seems to contradict his deteriorating personal circumstances while illuminating 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.”

It was toward the end of the 1960s that Delaney’s alcoholism and paranoia became perilous, resulting in a suicide attempt. In 1975, he was hospitalized in a Paris mental institution and died there in 1979, shortly after his first major retrospective, an exhibition of sixty-seven works held at Harlem’s Studio Museum in 1978. In a 1985 essay, James Baldwin recalled that “Beauford was the first walking, living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. . . . 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.”