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Chrysler Museum acquires portrait by Harlem Renaissance painter Beauford Delaney
Beauford Delaney (American, 1901–1979), Portrait of James Baldwin, 1965, Oil on canvas, Museum purchase, 2015.28, Image © Estate of Beauford Delaney, used by permission.

NORFOLK, VA.- The Chrysler Museum of Art adds to its collection an iconic painting in the history of African American cultural and artistic achievement.

The portrait depicting celebrated writer and activist James Baldwin (1924–1987) was painted by his close friend and mentor, artist Beauford Delaney (1901–1979). The Chrysler’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously on December 10, 2015 to purchase the powerful 1965 work. The 25-by-21-inch oil on canvas painting, previously held in a private collection, presents Baldwin’s face larger-than-life, set against a bold background of fluorescent yellow.

“Beauford Delaney’s expressive style of painting is unique and unforgettable, and we are proud to add this important artist to our permanent collection,” says Erik Neil, Director of the Chrysler Museum of Art. “It is especially meaningful that this picture testifies to his friendship with a fellow African American creative genius, the literary giant James Baldwin.”

The painting goes on public view in January in the Chrysler’s Roberts Wing for American and European Art. It will appear alongside other major works from the early- and mid-20th century in Gallery 221.

Though Beauford Delaney was born in Knoxville, Tenn., his family has Virginia roots. His maternal grandmother, Susan Johnson, was a free black born in Norfolk, and is thought to be a descendant of some of the first free black colonists on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. His mother, Delia Johnson Delaney, was born into slavery in Virginia in 1865 during the final weeks of the Civil War, and his father, the Reverend Samuel Delaney, a Methodist minister and barber, also was a native of the Commonwealth.

Beauford Delaney was born into a large family that encouraged his (and his younger brother Joseph’s) early displays of artistic and musical talent. In the early 1920s, he moved to Boston and studied at the Massachusetts Normal School, the Copley Society, and the South Boston School of Art. In 1929 the building cultural momentum of the Harlem Renaissance drew Delaney to New York City. There he met painters Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, and many other leading members of this vibrant community. Artistically, however, Delaney gravitated toward the avant-garde circle of modern artists led by Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis, and John Marin. He took classes at the Art Students League under Thomas Hart Benton and John Sloan, and he found work as a caretaker, porter, and telephone operator at the fledgling Whitney Museum of American Art in Greenwich Village.

“As an artist, Delaney bridges two divergent movements within American modernism,” explains Alex Mann, the Chrysler’s Brock Curator of American Art, who led the accession process. “His visual style has layers of color, learned from Cezanne, and the rich surface texture of Van Gogh, two painters he deeply admired. However, just under the surface there are rhythms of jazz, gospel, and the blues—the spirits of Harlem and his childhood in the South.”

Around 1940 friends encouraged the aspiring writer James Baldwin, still a high school student at the time, to introduce himself to Delaney. Thus began a lifelong friendship. Over the next three decades, Delaney created at least 10 portraits of Baldwin. Among them, the Chrysler’s 1965 oil painting is one of the largest and mostly highly finished. Deep blues, reds, and greens peek out from layers of brown paint in the face, revealing the rich variety within Delaney’s palette.

But one color—fluorescent yellow—dominates the painting and Delaney’s work during the final decades of his career. Delaney renders the writer’s suit and tie, as well as the painting’s background, in blazing shades of incandescence. “I learned about light from Beauford Delaney, the light contained in every thing, in every surface, in every face,” James Baldwin wrote in 1965, the year of this portrait’s creation. To Delaney, bright swirls of yellow conveyed warmth, freedom, healing and redemption, comforting the artist during periods of poverty, depression and, late in his life, dementia.

James Baldwin evolved into one of America’s most acclaimed writers in the quarter century between his first meeting with Delaney and the creation of this portrait. A fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation allowed Baldwin to move to France in 1948. His novel Go Tell It on the Mountain appeared in 1953, followed by Giovanni’s Room (1958) and Another Country (1962), as well as his acclaimed New Yorker essay “The Fire Next Time” (1963) and many other essays and plays. In 1965 he released Going to Meet the Man, a collection of short stories that he dedicated to his mentor Delaney. That same year Baldwin returned to the United States to join Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, where he shared the speakers’ platform with King, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and other Civil Rights leaders.

Homosexuality, however, frequently complicated Baldwin’s role as a spokesperson for racial equality. This experience of double discrimination, both homophobia and racism, motivated his expatriation to Europe. It also shaped the life and career of his friend Delaney. While living in New York in the 1930s and ’40s, Delaney found more social acceptance of his sexuality among the Bohemian artists and musicians of Greenwich Village than with his friends in Harlem. Like Baldwin, he ultimately moved to France in 1953 in search of even greater tolerance and freedom.

Delaney’s expressionistic painting style often gives psychological energy to his portraits, suggesting that the painter understood the thoughts and feelings of his subjects. His 1965 Portrait of James Baldwin is a particularly strong example of this relationship, no doubt a product of their long friendship and shared perspective on society’s shortcomings. Baldwin himself described this connection between seen and unseen forces in Delaney’s work. In 1965, he wrote, “Beauford’s work leads the inner and the outer eye, directly and inexorably, to a new confrontation with reality.”

Beauford Delaney, after several years of hospitalization and illness, died in Paris in 1979. This Portrait of James Baldwin is one of many paintings that has remained in the hands of his estate since that time. It was featured in the first major retrospective exhibition and publication of Delaney’s work, organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1978, and it has been exhibited and reproduced in numerous shows and publications since then. The Chrysler Museum of Art acquired the painting from the Delaney Estate, with assistance from a New York-based fine art dealer. Other portraits of James Baldwin by Delaney are in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries, and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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