Insight on the Artists: Beauford Delaney

The Menokin Foundation is currently hosting a traveling exhibit from the VMFA (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) through the end of March.  These insights are designed to give you a better understanding of the artists and their work. The exhibit is FREE, so don’t miss the opportunity to come see for yourself. 

On display at Menokin is another artist, Beauford Delaney, American, 1901–1979, an American modernist painter. He achieved an artist’s education in Boston where his black activist politics and ideas became established through associations with some of the most sophisticated and radical African-Americans of the time. By 1929, the essentials of his artistic education complete, Beauford decided to leave Boston and head for New York.

Beauford DelaneyGreene Street, 1946
Beauford Delaney Greene Street, 1946

He is remembered for his work with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s and 1940s of energetic urban street scenes. Harlem was an exciting place, then the center of black cultural life in the United States. But it was also the time of the Great Depression. Delaney felt an immediate affinity with this city people of all races – spending every night in parks and cafes, surviving on next to nothing. His colorful paintings from his Greenwich Village neighborhood, repeatedly depicting commonplace elements such as fire escapes, lampposts, and hydrants are represented in this painting, Greene Street,1946.

He had many friends among local painters and writers and was an integral part of the artistic life of the community. In time, Delaney would establish himself as a well known part of the art scene. His friends included the poet laureate of the period, Countee Cullen, would become the “spiritual father” to the young writer James Baldwin, and a friend of artist Georgia O’Keeffe and writer Henry Miller among many others. Writer Henry Miller recalled visiting Delaney’s apartment and studio on Greene Street and seeing “some small canvases of street scenes. They were virulent, explosive paintings…They were all Greene Street through and through, only invested with color, mad with color; they were full of remembrances too, and solitudes.”


Delaney_Marian Anderson_1965
Marian Anderson, 1965 

In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused permission for Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall. The incident placed Anderson into the spotlight of the international community on a level unusual for a classical musician. With the aid of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt, Anderson performed a critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. She sang before a crowd of more than 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions.


 

In Greenwich Village, where his studio was, Delaney became part of a gay bohemian circle of mainly white friends; but he was furtive and rarely comfortable with his sexuality.  The pressures of being “black and gay in a racist and homophobic society” was difficult. Delaney had tremendous pride in black achievement and also participated in a number of black artists exhibitions with fellow artists like Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden.

In 1953, at the age of 52, Delaney left New York for Paris. Europe had already attracted many other African-American artists and writers who had found a greater sense of freedom there. Writers Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Gibson, and artists Harold Cousins, had all preceded him in journeying to Europe. His years in Paris would lead to a dramatic stylistic shift from the figurative compositions of New York life to abstract expressionist studies of color and light. Delaney believed various hues held spiritual significance and was drawn to the color yellow, which he felt possessed the properties of light, healing, and redemption.

 

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