Why was Beauford Delaney Under The Radar as a Modernist?

Beauford Delaney Photograph: Carl Van Vetchten 1953

To answer this question, we must first internalize the setting and environment that Beauford Delaney experienced. Though brought up in economic poverty, his talent as an artist brought him work and art education in Boston.

Beauford will move to New York City in 1929 where he will be welcome in the Harlem Renaissance Movement. He was earning a reputation as a genius & mentor to the bohemian art scene. He garnered respect and friendship from very famous and influential people. So, what happened?

Childhood Artists

Raised in Knoxville, TN. during the oppressive Jim Crow era (early 20th Century); Beauford Delaney and his brother Joseph encouraged by their mother Delia will become exceptionally creative.

Delia Delaney was a talented seamstress in her own right who instilled support, ambition, and strength for her boys to become artists. Beauford had already sold his first painting at age 14. His path was becoming clear.

Impressionism Impacts

In the 1920s Lloyd Branson was Knoxville TN’s most famous artist. Branson was known for his Impressionist style of painting and commercial portraits. He probably noticed Beauford Delaney thru his sign designs or other artwork on display in town.

Regardless, he began to mentor young Delaney and then urged him to study art in Boston Mass. I believe Branson’s influence never left the young artist.

Once at school, he became immersed in art history, visiting museums, and especially Impressionism and Post-Impressionism artists.

New York City

After finishing art studies in Boston, Beauford heads to the Big Apple to seek his fortune as a painter. Unfortunately, he arrived there after the stock market crash of 1929 which contributed to The 1930s Great Depression.

Beauford Delaney- Can Fire In The Park - representational abstract painting - New York City - credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum
Can Fire in The Park – 1946

Though times were tough, he got by with menial jobs, commissions at the Federal Art Project, and Charles Alston’s Harlem Hospital Mural Project.

Alston will afford Delaney more work in his salons which led to important associations with pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Beauford Delaney made an intense impact there and found himself part of this surging movement. Eventually, he became a respected elder, an enigmatic Buddha, or Merlin that drew people to him like a magnet. His work was genius.

The abstraction, ostensibly, is simply for me the penetration of something that is more profound in many ways than rigidity of a form. A form if it breathes some, if it has some enigma to it, it is also the enigma that is the abstract, I would think.

Beauford Delaney

During The Harlem Renaissance, he would count Henry Miller, Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis, Norman Lewis, Augusta Savage, Romare Bearden, Countee Cullen, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin among his close friends and supporters.

The Disappearance of Beauford Delaney

You may wonder how someone with such unsurpassed talent and support could drop out of sight and not be rediscovered for decades.

Delaney overcame poverty in Knoxville TN and challenged himself to become a black artist in America during the Jim Crow era. That was an amazing feat in itself.

Yet, there was a dark side to the color and light this man revealed in his extraordinary paintings. Booze, mental illness and tortured complex homosexual tendencies, incapacitated him at times.

These things started to germinate in Boston while he was in college.  As he matured it worsened and made him more reclusive.

neither early success nor gracious spirit spared Delaney from the obscurity and poverty” that plagued most of his adult life.

The Smithsonian Art Museum

Indigent most of his life, he was a nonconformist to a fault. This did not help to define or promote his style and paintings universally.

His work will achieve high praise in NYC and throughout his inner circle, but not really accepted in the mainstream.

Move To Paris

Finally, The Great Depression would shut down The Harlem Renaissance era by necessity. Once a vibrant and vogue movement attracting folks beyond the black population ended overnight. The rich contributions of African American art, literature, philosophy & entertainment will forever live on.

In the 1940s Abstract Expressionism was KING in New York City. However, Delaney did not want to be associated with the “macho abstract expressionists” Neumann, Caryn E., 2005, An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer Culture. This isolated him even further in a huge movement that was exploding all around him.

He moved to Paris in 1953. Art historians will chronicle abstract expressionism as being a major factor why NYC became the new Arts Center of The World. In the ’40s Beauford first dabbled in this style but did not ascribe the paintings to abstract expressionism. Even so after moving to Paris; Delaney’s work will be panned by New York critics as irrelevant for the times.

It is ironic to note that His years in Paris led to a dramatic stylistic shift from the “figurative compositions of New York life to abstract expressionist studies of color and light” (Canterbury, Patricia Sue, 2004, Beauford Delaney: from New York to Paris, University of Washington Press.)


Delaney, it seems, never attributed his style to any particular art movement. For instance, “Can Fire In The Park” 1946 is arguably representational art; yet, it could be a forerunner of abstract expressionism.

Although he was extremely proud of Black Achievement; he never thought of himself exclusively as a Negro artist. He Had empathy towards the droves of people of all races. It came from experiencing and painting The Great Depression.

“No one knows exactly how Beauford lives. Pegging away at a style of painting that few people understand or appreciate, he has disciplined himself, not only physically but spiritually, to live with a kind of personal magnetism in a barren world.”

Once Around The Sun – author Brooks Atkinson

Delaney’s paintings seem to say, “I may be suffering, but what an experience this is”. Delaney’s work “is never depressing, though Beauford was often depressed; he could say yes to life in spite of the fact that life was kicking him in the butt.” – Biographer, David Leeming, quoted in Neely 1997

My Summary of Why Beauford Delaney went under the radar for so long:

This painters’ fall from grace includes an end of The Harlem Renaissance & disenfranchisement of African Americans which affected the black population as a whole. He was no exception. But, to be more specific:

  • Delaney’s move to Paris at a crucial moment that NYC became the world’s cultural center. Changing trends & critics would render his artwork unpalatable.
  • Abstract Expressionism was IN and Impressionism was out of vogue, so it seems.
  • He had a Style of painting few could understand or define so he’s classified as a modernist painter
  • However, when experiencing his work, you get that his passion is Impressionist, not modernist. (Impressionism’s influence on Modernism)
  • Delaney’s heavy drinking and fragile psychological/physical condition prevented him from promoting his work outside of NYC or his inner circle. Therefore not gaining the notoriety he most certainly deserved.
  • His indigence made him even more introverted
  • A 1988 exhibition Beauford Delaney: From Tennessee to Paris will finally give credence to this man’s contribution to the arts.

UN-neglected Today

This was an extraordinary and intelligent man and one of the most important black artists of our time. He was an artist’s artist and was virtually unknown.

Today his work hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Harvard University Art Museums, Art Institute of Chicago, Knoxville Museum of Art, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Newark Museum, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

UN-neglected today; Delaney’s work is on exhibition at Anita Shapolsky Gallery (NYC) and the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York City. Kind of a homecoming and vindication for this forgotten talent.


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Beauford Delaney Bio on The Art Story site