Beauford Delaney

Portrait of James Baldwin

Delaney Portrait Of James Baldwin Philadelphia Museum Of Art 1500
  • Beauford Delaney
  • Portrait of James Baldwin
  • 1945
  • Oil on canvas
  • 55.9 x 45.7 cm
  • Courrtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art: 125th Anniversary Acquisition. Purchased with funds contributed by The Daniel W. Dietrich Foundation in memory of Joseph C. Bailey and with a grant from The Judith Rothschild Foundation, 1998

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.”

Caroline Wallace

Biography of Beauford Delaney

  • Born 1901 in Knoxville, TN, USA
  • Died 1979 in Paris, France
A key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Beauford Delaney apprenticed with painter Lloyd Branson (1853–1925) in Knoxville before beginning his art studies in Boston in 1924. He moved to New York in 1929. He participated in the “306” group of African-American painters led by Charles Alston (1907–1977) in Harlem, but as a gay artist, he also maintained a studio and bohemian circle on Greene Street in Greenwich Village. He depicted the neighborhood in many paintings in the late 1940s. Delaney gained recognition for his portraits of prominent African-Americans, such as Duke Ellington. In 1930 some of these portraits were shown at the Whitney Museum Studio Galleries in New York. During his time in New York Delaney established lifelong friendships with the novelists Henry Miller (1891–1980) and James Baldwin (1924–1987). In 1953 he followed Baldwin to Paris, where he lived for the rest of his life. Delaney suffered mental illness in France but continued to work and exhibit. His art moved from representational pastel portraits and street scenes to completely abstract paintings of an Expressionist manner. Always using thickly applied paint and bright colors, Delaney’s painting style recalled the techniques of the French Fauves and Van Gogh. Shortly before his death, the Studio Museum in Harlem organized his first retrospective.