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Beauford Delaney’s Artistic Journey


Beauford Delaney is one of the common artists in the United States. He was born on December 30th, 1901, in Knoxville, Tennessee. His mother was called Delia, and his father Samuel was the eighth among the ten children. The mother made a living by cleaning for the rich, while his father was a devoted member of the church. Many people respected Delaney’s family despite their low socioeconomic status (Wicks, 2020). They faced harsh conditions and challenges such as long-distance walks to school, too much work, and the wrong places to live. Delia was a talented and creative seamless lady who encouraged Delaney and his brother Joseph to nurture their artistic works at a young age. Their first drawing was copies of Sunday school picture drawings and the family Bible. People also noticed his artistic talents at a young age, when he portrayed his creative skills. Thus, there are various aspects that one can discuss regarding Delaney, such as his works and their meanings.

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Historical Contexts for the Artist and their Work

Delaney as a teenager worked in a post-Sign Company and impressionist Lloyd Branson noticed his work, the most influential artist in Knoxville. Branson encouraged and empowered 23-year-old Delaney to go and study art in Boston (Wicks, 2020). Delaney learned a lot from the local art museums and drawings drawn by impressionists. He noticed his mental health problems, especially when he noticed he was gay and became more introverted. Delaney completed their studies in 1929; after school, he did odd jobs like working in hotels (Wicks, 2020). Sometimes Delaney participated in Alston salons, where he met with artists like Norman Lewis. Moreover, he was a respected elder of the Harlem renaissance crowd, and like many Harlem artists, Delaney was interested in African portraits. In 1953 he left New York for Paris to find greater freedom and escape the African oppression (Wicks, 2020). In the 1960s, heavy drinking and mental health started taking their toll when his work had begun (Wicks, 2020). In 1972 on henry miller’s birthday, he met most of his friends. He died in 1979 at St Anne’s hospital for insane, he was mourned all over the world, and his work shall forever be remembered.

Inequality was experienced in America between Americans and African Americans; some factors like racism, poverty, lack of quality education, and lack of good-paying jobs differentiated them. These factors inspired most of his portraits, and he was tired of the discrimination that African Americans underwent. The lack of good living conditions for the African Americans led to the loss of lives. For instance, in Delaney’s family, only four children survived due to poor living. The African schools did not offer quality education since they were not allocated enough funds, unlike the schools that admitted the whites. The Africans couldn’t be provided high-paying jobs or decent jobs in the top companies or industries.

Racism and sexual biases were practiced, the Americans discriminated against the Africans, and they were seen as foreigners. Delaney was African American who was gay; it was difficult for him to fit in, leading to depression. He moved to Paris in France to escape the discriminative Americans. Sex biases contributed to his mental health deteriorating, accelerated by depression. He tried to cope with the situation by interacting with other people and painting (Wicks, 2020). In his artistic works, the portrait “untitled” showed the freedom he had experienced in France. Delaney believed in inequality of all the races; during World War II, the Americans were offered advanced training, unlike the Africans who had training later. This led the Americans to be more experienced than the Africans.

Bonding among people with various similarities was common; for instance, the artists would stay together, and it was easier for them to understand each other. People of the same race also lived together as it was easy for them to interact easily. This contributed to the workers of some artists, such as Delaney. Delaney’s portrait of James Baldwin was drawn because they were all African American citizens, artists, and all gays (Wicks, 2020). He designed the portrait to show the bond and the similarities they had and shared. He also drew the image of Fitzgerald, who was his fellow African American.

Analysis of the Two Paintings that Represent the Artist’s World View

The burning bush is one of Delaney’s famous early works with a strong impression of biblical imagery. In the painting, the rays of the fire divide the blue sky. The green, orange, purple, and brown colors represent the landscape where the burning bush is. Critics have described the panting as Delaney’s realist approach to characterizing his work by embracing emotional and evocative style. Considering that the burning bush is spiritual imagery, Harlem renaissance painters and writers tended to write and draw about the church (Wicks, 2020).

They wrote about the church because of the powerful influence of the church; as part of their culture, artists like Delaney were Methodist preachers; hence, he had a strong Christian foundation. Therefore the burning bush represents great work of the almighty work in his life. Delaney did not want to be termed as “Negro”, a name used to refer to the black Africans. He wished to work together with Harlem renaissance artists like hale woodruff. Delaney believed in equality and equity among all humans; he did not believe in racism; he worked well with the artists of different races,

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Portrait of James Baldwin, the bond between James and Delaney was the most important in his life from New York to when he settled in Paris. The picture shows how James was young and vibrant with large eyes, and his clothes were colored with paints, his figure was surrounded by blocks of different colors and sizes. James recalled that Delaney taught him how to see and how to trust what he saw. The portrait also shows the bond the two artists shared, and they were African American and gay artists. They struggled to cope with the racist and homophobic community together, making them move and settle in Paris; the portrait showed a revelation of intimacy between the two men.

The Contribution of Beauford Delaney to the African American History

African Americans faced sexual biases and racial discrimination and were seen as outcasts. Delaney was a modernist artist; he used his portraits to capture the mood. Delaney portrayed what the African Americans were going through. Delaney used the portrait can fire in the park to define homelessness among African Americans (Wicks, 2020). He brought into drawing a topic that was well-known but ignored into the limelight. The African Americans lacked proper funds for their school, well-paying jobs, and discrimination in the military. Delaney contributed to his culture’s unison and loyalty; his drawings were African related, and the African Americans appreciated their artists, filmmakers, and writers. Delaney believed that racial segregation was depressive; he wanted the white American to stop and ensure equity without biases in schools, workplaces, government, and the military.

In 1953, Delaney moved from New York to Paris; he was part of the gay bohemian culture in Greenwich Village. He hid his homosexuality from his friends in Harlem for the fear that they would be driven away by his sexual orientation. Gay led him to live a private and isolated private life; Delaney suffered a lot of sexual and racial discrimination. He moved to Paris to run away from American society. Delaney’s works were focused on the depression of racial discrimination that the African Americans went through; the Americans considered them outcasts. In 1948, President Harry Truman tried to stop discrimination in the federal government positions, but this did not affect the private industries where discrimination continued.


In conclusion, Delaney is a Harlem Renaissance painter whose portraits created the mood of the message he delivered. His portraits were inspired by the harsh and tormenting American society that treated African Americans as outcasts through racial segregation and sexual biases. The subject matter he addressed in his work is, for instance, black disenfranchisement, poverty, and homelessness. Delaney was more concerned about his self-expression rather than social. His work was more about his life and what he has gone through as an African American citizen; the societies should ensure equity despite the racial and sexual differences in schools, workplaces, government offices, and the neighborhood.


Wicks, S. C. (Ed.). (2020). Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door. Knoxville Museum of Art.

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