Joseph Delaney
Joseph Delaney (1904-1991)
"A Tale of Two Brothers"
by Jack Neely

from Metropulse, Vol. 7, No. 13, April 3-10, 1997
Beauford Delaney
Beauford Delaney (1901-1979)

Joseph Delaney's death at UT Hospital on November 20, 1991, was the end of a saga on the scale of an epic, a dual story of two talented but very different brothers. Both born in Knoxville at the turn of the century (Beauford in 1901, Joseph in 1904), the Delaneys grew up on old East Vine Street, the sons of a respected Methodist minister. They moved around the region following their dad's preaching assignments, but spent most of their youths in Knoxville.

Both brothers showed an early aptitude for art. "We were constantly doing something with our hands," Joseph recalled later, "modeling with the very red Tennessee clay." Beauford was, from the beginning, a charismatic personality whose talents were diverse: "Beauford could always strum on a ukulele and sing like mad and could mimic with the best," said Joe.

Augusta Hyatte, who still lives in Knoxville, remembers Beauford from the Austin School on Central, near what's now the Old City, around 1912. "Beauford like to draw then," she says, laughing. "Some students were getting their lessons, some were doing something else. Beauford was drawing pictures all the time."

Margaret Carson, a historian associated with the Beck Cultural Center, also remembers. Beauford was a couple of years older than she was, but she always assumed he was younger. "He never did get real tall, like his brother," she says. Of the two brothers, she says, "Beauford was the one at the time that everybody was saying, 'he's gonna be an artist.' I remember he drew a picture of the principal that looked just like him." (That principal was noted educator Charles Cansler.) When Carson needed a picture of a medieval knight for a school report, Beauford drew her one for a quarter.

As a teenager, Beauford found work as a "helper" with the Post Sign Company, back when signs were painted by professional artists, and with a downtown leather-working shop.

Somewhere along the way Beauford's sketches impressed a local artist named Lloyd Branson. A white commercial artist in his 60's who kept a studio on Gay Street, Branson was an accomplished but stylistically conservative painter. He made his living in portraits, but had won awards for his bolder paintings. Branson's now remembered as one of the finest painters in Knoxville before the Delaneys; his work appears in recently published books about Southern artists.

Branson saw a special talent in this small black man almost 50 years his junior and hired him as a "porter," in exchange for painting lessons. Beauford Delaney became, essentially, Branson's apprentice.

It's hard to imagine an odder duo in early 1920's Knoxville; the elderly, formal Old Master, and the lively, mimicking, adolescent Beauford Delaney. It may be hard to see Branson's influence in the modern work of Beauford Delaney, except in their shared interest in portraits.

By 1924, the year before his death, Branson realized Delaney had talents that might go well beyond what the elder portraitist could teach him. Branson arranged to send the 23-year-old Delaney to art school in Boston. After that, Beauford Delaney returned to Knoxville to visit, but never again to live.

Hard Knox

Meanwhile, Beauford's more conservative, more private brother Joseph, three years younger, had a harder youth, perhaps more typical of a black kid in early 20th-century Knoxville. He worked as a caddy at Cherokee Country Club and as a bellhop at the Farragut Hotel, a job that got him into trouble as he attempted to obtain illegal liquor and women for guests.

Joseph left Knoxville at 18, a couple of years before his older brother did, hopping a train out of town looking for work. Sometimes living outside the law, Joseph spent much of the '20s hoboing around the Midwest. He joined the National Guard in Chicago. By 1929, he was back home, trying to sell insurance, helping found Knoxville's first black Boy Scout troop. Inspired by his older brother's success in art, Joseph moved to New York in 1930, near the end of the artistic flourishing known as the Harlem Renaissance, to join his brother, who'd arrived in Manhattan a year earlier.

Beauford had changed. His friends were Greenwich Village bohemians, some of them flamboyantly homosexual; he'd also developed more daring ideas about art, strongly influenced by 20th-century artists like Matisse. The brothers split up, Joseph joined the Art Students League and, by 1932, was studying with the elderly muralist Thomas Hart Benton. Like Benton, Joseph Delaney devoted his career to realism. For over 50 years in New York, he pursued a career portraying real life on the crowded streets of Manhattan.


Meanwhile, Beauford, the wild one, was turning heads all over the Village with his art and his personality. He had a reputation as an unorthodox portraitist: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and W.C. Handy all sat for Beauford Delaney portraits, some of which were featured in a 1930 show at the Whitney. He returned to Knoxville in 1933 and painted a portrait of his mother, but was soon back in the Village, now painting vivid landscapes of downtown scenes. In October 1938, Life magazine gave Beauford national exposure, prominently publishing a photograph of Delaney with his work at an outdoor show at Washington Square.

In the early '40s, a New York paper observed that Delaney was living without electricity in a Village slum, proud of his collection of the condemnation notices he kept finding on his building. The leaky apartment's floor was sometimes coated with ice. He showed his paintings to visitors by candlelight. They were his only indulgence. Despite the artist's extreme living conditions, his colorful paintings covering Beauford's walls reminded one visitor of an encapsulated Mardi Gras.

About that time, Beauford Delaney met a teenaged preacher named James Baldwin. Delaney became an important father figure for the troubled kid - Baldwin's first proof that a black man could survive, somehow, as an artist. The two remained close for 40 years, through Baldwin's rise to success as the author of Another Country and The Fire Next Time (Baldwin later started a novel based on Delaney's life, called A Higher Place - but he died before finishing it.)

Delaney also met author Henry Miller, already notorious for his often-banned Tropic novels. Delaney painted Miller's portrait, and Miller returned the favor with an essay, "The Amazing and Invariable Beauford Delaney": "Brother Beauford is making an image in heavenly colors," Miller wrote, "an image not of me, not of him, but of God." Delaney developed a reputation as a portraitist of almost uncanny perception." He could size up a lifetime of somebody by looking at them." his niece Ogust Stewart says.

Americans didn't talk as much about Beauford Delaney after he left for Europe in 1953. "He left because he was not accepted to the degree he should have been," Ogust Stewart says. "The United States hasn't grown up yet. We punish persons we should celebrate." Passing through Paris on his way to Italy, Delaney fell for the city and stayed. There, he began dabbling in abstracts and, eventually, losing his mind.

Delaney biographer David Leeming says Delaney heard voices even in his youth. They began to trouble him more often in the '60s. Over the Christmas season of 1969-70, Beauford Delaney came home to Knoxville where his older brother Sam, a retired barber, still lived. Sam's daughter Ogust recalls that during his visit, the phone at Dandridge Avenue repeatedly rang as people with foreign accents begged Beauford to come back to France.

Beauford Delaney did return to Paris and was eventually institutionalized there, diagnosed with acute paranoia. Baldwin, then a wealthy author, filed to become Beauford Delaney's legal guardian. Even in 1975, Baldwin petitioned, " I anticipate a problem concerning the disposition of his estate and hereby express my willingness to help in any way possible in order to ensure that Mr. Delaney's estate will be protected to the advantage of his family and heirs."

Baldwin also publicized an effort to transport Beauford Delaney back home to Knoxville, convinced it would be good for Beauford's emotional health. It never happened.

Beauford Delaney died in Paris in 1979, having never made a will. To settle his debts, the French government gathered everything in his apartment at St. Anne's Hospital: paintings, letters, even his elaborate miniature doodles on paper scraps. A committee led by Baldwin governed his estate for a time, but was eventually supplanted by the French government. (Baldwin died in 1987.) All Beauford's stuff eventually made its way back to Knoxville.

The Homecoming

The means by which it all came home was Beauford's brother Joe. The younger Delaney had enjoyed a degree of respect, if not monetary success, in the New York art world. With more than $6,000 of his own money, Joe paid the French taxes and storage and shipping fees to bring crates of Beauford's art and personal effects back to his spare apartment in Manhattan. Beauford and Joseph didn't always get along; Joseph was troubled by Beauford's apparent homosexuality and never had much patience for abstract art, either. Asked why he went to such lengths to preserve his brother's work, he said, "You'd do it for your brother." But some of Beauford's boxes Joseph never even opened.

By 1970, the University of Tennessee had expressed interest in Joseph's art, inviting him to exhibit at McClung Museum, acquiring Delaney's large urban street scene, VJ Day, Times Square, which today hangs in the University Center's lobby. When Joe returned to Knoxville in 1982 to attend his brother Sam's funeral, he visited UT again to have another look at his painting. Ewing Gallery director Sam Yates told Delaney then that UT would like to mount a show.

Yates remembers bringing a Delaney exhibit to UT as the best result of the Homecoming '86 festival. Yates visited Delaney in New York to pick out some work and observed Delaney's living quarters - on an upper floor of a commercial building near Union Square, without a kitchen, sharing a bathroom with other tenants. "His apartment was so crammed, we had to pick from the perimeter of this pile of work," Yates recalls.

At the opening, Delaney saw another old friend, Alex Haley, who the Delaneys had known in the Village back in the '40s. According to Yates, "Alex Haley was instrumental in suggesting to the administration the artist-in-residence idea." ... UT offered Joe a rent-free cottage at 916 22nd Street, on the west end of campus.

Yates explains Delaney's role as UT artist-in-residence. "He didn't have any teaching responsibilities. He would occasionally let students come over and talk with him. And he used to come over and draw with the figure-drawing class at night."

In interviews, Delaney sounded upbeat about the move - a chance to see beautiful scenery and visit with old friends. Delaney did entertain visitors on 22nd Street, old friends and new, Yates says, "But his visitors weren't necessarily art people." Yates recalls one black art instructor who tried to befriend Delaney, but the two didn't hit it off.

Delaney's last five years were physically active ones. "Joe liked to walk," Hardy Liston, UT associate vice-chancellor, recalls. "The first few months he was here, he got up in the morning and walked all the way to East Knoxville. He'd walk and marvel at the scenery." Delaney often ate a salad at the nearby Burger King or at Ramsey's Cafeteria. Through young friends he also discovered the Old City jazz club Lucille's, which he said reminded him of a favorite Harlem cafe. Each Sunday, someone would drive over and pick him up to take him to his old family church, Lennon-Seney Methodist on Dandridge.

But he did very little work. His forte was crowded, urban scenes; he didn't find them in 1980's Knoxville. "His only complaint with Knoxville was that it wasn't New York," Liston says. Nor was Knoxville the crowded, public city Delaney remembered in paintings like his boisterous 1940 canvas, Vine and Central, Knoxville, Tennessee.

"He liked Knoxville, but he liked it in his memory," Yates says. "What interested him were parades, crowds of people. But also, he was getting older. He slowed down. He, as an artist, decided he had already done an awful lot." ... "I thought Joe was peaceful here," Yates says. "He always seemed relaxed. But Knoxville's just a very different place from New York ..."

Posthumous Fame

The year Joseph died, a show at the Philippe Briet Gallery in New York got people talking about his brother Beauford more than they had before. The nationally-read weekly Village Voice ran a two-page feature on "The Undiscovered Art of Beauford Delaney": "Hard as it may be to believe, this show makes it clear that a major black figure slipped through the cracks..."

The accolades mounted. In the widely respected 1993 text, A History of African American Artists, painter Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson gave a chapter to Beauford Delaney, hailing him as a unique artist who "saw color, even within color" and quoted Delaney fan Georgia O'Keefe. The same book also included a section on Joseph Delaney, implying that the Delaney brothers were two of the 30 or 40 most important black artists in American history.

In 1994, another Beauford Delaney show at Philippe Briet Gallery brought more attention, inspiring a profile in Art in America called "Whatever Happened to Beauford Delaney?," amplifying the question in the illustrated text: "Why is this once well-regarded 'artist's artist' virtually unknown to the American art public? Then came another Voice profile: "The Lost Master."

The same year, Leeming's nationally praised biography James Baldwin came out, its Chapter 4 entitled Beauford Delaney. Leeming, an international scholar of world mythology who'd known Delaney in Paris and Istanbul, says a Delaney biography came to seem inevitable. "If you're interested in Baldwin," he says, "you can't not be interested in Delaney."

Leeming began researching the full-length biography called Amazing Grace: A Biography of Beauford Delaney. "Beauford Delaney, like Baldwin, seemed like a case to be studied," he says, "When I met Beauford Delaney in Paris, I was already writing his biography." Leeming says Baldwin described Delaney as "a cross between Br'er Rabbit and Francis of Assisi"; Leeming learned what he meant. "Beauford had a kind of holiness, but also a sense of trickery, a sense of the funny about him. You see that combination in his painting - there's an ethereal love of light and life, but also a quirky comic vision." Delaney's paintings seem to say, "I may be suffering, but what an experience this is! Leeming says 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 ass."
Amazing Grace
Amazing Grace:
A Life of Beauford Delaney

by David Leeming

Metropulse Online
"No Greater Lover"
by Jack Neely

from Metropulse, Vol. 5, No. 8, and
Knoxville's Secret History (1995)
Knoxville's Secret History
Knoxville's Secret History
by Jack Neely

Last fall, in response to a well-received Manhattan showing of the paintings of an American expatriate, the fine arts journal Art in America posed a question: "Why is this once well regarded 'artist's artist' virtually unknown to the American public? ... Why did Beauford Delaney so completely disappear from American art history?" An earlier article in the Village Voice implied a similar question - why was Beauford Delaney, one of the most important American artists of the century, and still "a legend in Paris," so little known in New York?

Never mind Paris - the question I want to ask is this: Why is the prolific Beauford Delaney better known in New York than he is in his hometown?

He was born in a small house on East Vine around the turn of the century, a place that doubled as his dad's barber shop. He grew up there, attending the Methodist church were his dad preached one block away. When he was a teenager, he got a job as a "helper" with the Post Sign Company (then located on the third floor of a Gay Street building that's still there today, sort of, in an oddly remodeled version). But all along, he and his younger brother Joseph were drawing signs of their own. Some of the older brother's work caught the eye of an elderly white artist named Lloyd Branson.

Approaching 70, Branson was Knoxville's best-known artist. The work he produced in his Gay Street studio ranged from the grossly commercial to the sublime. A bona fide American Impressionist, Branson's powerful painting, "The Hauling of Marble," was the star of the Appalachian Exposition in 1910. In the early '20s, he hired a "porter" named Beauford Delaney.

It's spelled "Buford" in old city directories, always with the obligatory (c) for "colored." Branson himself was not necessarily known as a civil rights man - much of his baser work stooped to racial ridicule. If he had prejudices, he over-looked them to encourage this obviously talented young artist. Maybe Branson remembered how, in his own adolescence, an older man had encouraged him to study art - after seeing a sketch young Lloyd drew on a cigar box, a Civil War-era portrait of General Grant.

In Branson's studio, Beauford mixed paints and tried a few canvases himself. One early subject was Charles Cansler, the black Knoxville schoolteacher. With Branson's encouragement, Delaney went to Boston in 1924 to study art. Hardly a year later, Branson died.

By the time Delaney found time to revisit his home - nine years later - his bold, vivid talent was bringing him celebrity. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and even W.E.B. DuBois had sat for Beauford Delaney portraits. Delaney impressed Georgia O'Keefe and became close friends with the black expatriate novelist James Baldwin, who put an extravagant compliment of Delaney's work on paper:
"No greater lover has ever held a brush."

Delaney also befriended controversial white writer Henry Miller, whose erotic novels were still banned in America. Miller believed Delaney to be among the greatest living artists and in 1945 wrote an homage to him called "The Amazing and Invariable Beauford Delaney." In it, he condemned a dominant society that would dismiss the eccentric Delaney as "a crazy nigger."

In his 50's, Delaney moved to Paris and grew a long white beard. Soon he saw his work shown in the Musee d'Art Moderne and other influential galleries across Europe. He last visited Knoxville in 1969, soon after returning to Paris, he went mad. He died in a Paris asylum in 1979.

Back in 1938, a feature in Life magazine pictured Delaney. A photograph posed him on Washington Square in New York. The Knoxville News-Sentinel spotted the local angle and interviewed Delaney's mom, "Aunt" Delia, mentioned that Beauford's younger brother, Joseph, was also making a name for himself in the art world. "Meanwhile, the little house and barber shop remains as it was when Brother Sam Delaney and his wife came here 40 years ago," the story added. "Some day it may become a shrine as the birthplace of two famous Negro artists."

If it's meaningful at all to talk about geographical points, the Delaney's birthplace at 815 Vine is now part of the asphalt and grass that's called Summit Hill, maybe somewhere in the vicinity of Weigels. The house that was the Delaney home for more than 60 years vanished in the late 1960's, apparently without comment.

But you can still look for it if you want to. I bet Beauford Delaney himself did in 1969, during his final visit.

Back to Beauford Delaney

Back to Joseph Delaney Main Page