Beauford Delaney was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, one of ten children, and older brother to artist Joseph Delaney. Delaney’s talent was discovered by local and influential painter, Lloyd Branson whose support took him to Boston to study at the Massachusetts Normal School, the Copley Society, and the South Boston School of Art, in the mid-1920s.
In 1929, he moved to New York, where he became an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance, painting urban landscapes populated with the disenfranchised people he lived among, as well as portraits, sometimes of his famous friends.
Although he was a well-respected artist with influential friends like James Baldwin, Henry Miller, and Georgia O’Keefe, he couldn’t escape the sense of marginalization he felt as an individual who constantly had to overcome the inequalities of being not only African American, but homosexual as well. He moved to Paris in 1950, a place where he felt a new sense of freedom. His style shifted from the figurative compositions of New York City life to abstract expressionist studies of color and light, notably a vibrant, Van Gogh inspired yellow. In 1956, he met Darthea Speyer, an American cultural attaché living in Paris. She organized a group exhibition of works which included Delaney at the American Cultural Center in 1966, as well as two solo exhibitions of his work at her gallery which was established in 1968. Delaney lived his remaining years in Paris, eventually being hospitalized for mental illness and dying in 1979.
His work may be found in the collections of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; The Studio Museum, Harlem, NY; the Smithsonian Institution, and Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, MA.
In Narratives of African American Art and Identity, The David C. Driskell Collection, it is written, “Delaney’s relationship with abstraction predates the notorious Abstract Expressionist movement, positioning him as a forerunner of one of the most ideological and stylistic developments in twentieth-century American art.”
Don Freeman (American, 1908-1978) was a painter and illustrator and a close personal friend of Delaney’s. Freeman illustrated the immensely popular children’s book, Corduroy.
In an interview with Betty Hoag (Oral Histories, June 4,1965, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution), Freeman expressed his outrage concerning the W.P.A.’s refusal to accept Delaney’s work based on the subject matter:
Freeman knew Delaney when he lived at No. 10 Downing Street in New York, and Beauford’s living conditions were horrific. He spoke of them posting demolition signs on his building daily, and huge cracks in the walls, and during the winter the pipes had burst and there was an entire layer of ice forming under the floorboards.