This portrait of the American author and playwright James Baldwin (1924–1987) by Beauford Delaney is an intimate tribute to the vital relationship between the writer and the artist, both of whom occupied a critical position in mid-century American cultural life. According to Baldwin, Delaney “taught me how to see,” to record the everyday and the fleeting without reliance on convention or memory, “to see the light contained in every thing, in every surface, in every face.” After Baldwin met Delaney in New York City in 1945, when he was just twenty-one years old, the two shared a creative relationship when both moved to Paris in 1953 and joined a group of expatriate African American artists.
The parallels between Baldwin and Delaney are notable: Both defy categorization into any of the major artistic movements of the twentieth century; and their works represented African American life in the United States from a deeply personal perspective, from which they explored sexuality, identity, masculinity, and race through accounts of everyday life and individual struggles. In this portrait, the writer’s face occupies the whole canvas, staring out with an intensity and directness that creates an immediacy between viewer and subject. Strong, dark outlines define the face and features, while rippling colors create a shifting surface across the skin, suggesting the movement of light and the passing of time, “the light contained.”