"My mind goes back to those beautiful mountains and ridges and riversides, from West Knoxville out to Park City, and to the Tennessee River. No scenery is more beautiful to me than from East Knoxville all the way to West Knoxville down by the golf links, Cherokee Golf Club, where I caddied as a young boy, twenty-five cents a round. The beauty still stays with me. The beauty of that place as a child stays in my mind. The natural beauty was never spoiled. Clean river, nice people, just plain old beautiful Knoxville."
Joseph Delaney
interview with Sam Yates, March 28, 1986.


To Joseph Delaney Gallery




Joseph Delaney


© 1986 by Sam Yates, Director
Ewing Gallery
The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Joseph Delaney was an all-American artist. He remained steadfast to an honest portrayal of the human condition devoid of political rhetoric and always gently human in his observations. Recognized, but never celebrated, this genuine American artist deserves more clearly an established identity in the history of American art.

Born to the Reverend and Mrs. Samuel Delaney at 815 East Vine Avenue in 1904, Joseph Delaney was the ninth of ten children and the last of six boys. The Reverend Delaney was a Methodist minister and at one time a circuit rider who visited congregations in Harriman, LaFollette and other small towns in the Knoxville area. He was later the minister at East Vine Avenue Methodist Church. Reverend Delaney died when Joseph was only fifteen years old. After completing the ninth grade, Joseph left Knoxville Colored High School and worked odd jobs such as shining and delivering shoes and caddying at Cherokee Country Club. He eventually worked as a bellhop at the Farragut Hotel on Gay Street. During childhood and early adolescence, Joseph went to church regularly, not only on Sundays, but to other services as well. It was during those services that Joseph and his brother Beauford, who was three years older, probably discovered their aptitude for art by drawing on Sunday School religious cards. (Beauford later became an artist associated with the 1920's Harlem Renaissance movement and spent most of his later years painting in Paris). 1

The strong commitment to spiritual life in the Delaney family has always been an integral part of Joseph's character. However, he began to question his strict religious upbringing. As he stated, "Even as a boy, I went on my way. I was practically born in the pulpit. As a child, I had to go to every function of the church while right across the street, I saw people living like they wanted to live. I was sensitive to the fact that there was something about life I was being denied."2

When Joseph began working as a bellhop, he associated with people outside the church community and was exposed to other lifestyles. In order to make "good" tips, a bellhop had to do things that were slightly illegal. As Joseph stated, "You had to provide people with liquor, and you had to set up women for them."3 The young Delaney also learned to play pool, cards and other "gambling" games. He had numerous scrapes with the law, and began to feel guilty about the embarrassment that he was causing his mother and his family. Many times his elder brother, Samuel, Jr., was summoned by a policeman, a family friend, to get Joseph out of the "pen." Torn by the conflict between his enjoyment of this newfound lifestyle and the respect that he felt for his family, Joseph decided it was best if he left Knoxville.

At the age of eighteen, he had saved enough money to buy a train ticket to Kentucky, where he hoped to make his fortune by working in a coal mine. Upon arriving, Joseph found that he was denied a job at the mines, and instead worked reluctantly as a bus boy in a cafe. In ten days, he saved enough money to buy a train ticket to Cincinnati. There, he worked odd jobs and improved his skills at pool-shooting and gambling and after several months, Delaney again "hit the road" and led the life of a hobo. He continued gambling and working various jobs in the cities throughout the Midwest, from Pittsburgh to Chicago and did many things on the verge of breaking the law just to earn a living. During these years as a hobo, he learned to ride freight trains and to ride "between the blinds" on passenger trains.4 During his travels, he sketched various scenes of hobo life and did portraits of his vagabond friends. He said, "Being brought up in a tense home like I was - an extremely Christian home - I was enjoying the vastness and range before my eyes, seeing people who were freer than I'd ever known. I was just mystified with the new world. Being on the road gave me an experience it's hard to take away."5

In approximately 1925, Delaney arrived, via freight train, in the "Windy City." As before, he worked at various jobs, including nightclubs in the Loop. He enlisted in the Eight Illinois National Guard, signing up for a three-year stay. His enlistment led to the formation of friendships with individuals who strongly affected his life. Albert Ammons, a drummer in the same corps, later became the well-known boogie-woogie musician. Through Ammons, Joseph was introduced to "boogie-woogie" and jazz, developing in him a lifelong love affair with these forms of music. Working in clubs in Chicago and through his friendship with Ammons, Joseph met other great names such as Ma Rainey, Pete Johnson, and Big Joe Turner. During this time, Delaney enjoyed the life of the city and continued to draw. He stated, "That was the roarin' twenties, baby. Chicago had no peer except for Sodom and Gommorrah."6

After running into bad luck in 1929, Joseph returned to Knoxville with a train ticket that was purchased by his brother, Samuel. Joseph spent a year in his hometown selling insurance and working at his old job as bellhop. During this time he is credited with founding the first black boy scout troop in Knoxville. Joseph took his troop on hikes in the mountains and once went on a seven-mile hike, spending two days on Brown Mountain (south of Knoxville). He was asked by some the black leaders of Knoxville to start this scout troop. They felt his experience in the Illinois National Guard qualified him to be a good scoutmaster. He would have learned what the word "discipline" meant.7

At home, at the age of twenty-five, Joseph began to think more about what he wanted to do with his life. He and his brother, Beauford, had a close, but competitive relationship. Beauford was outgoing, musically inclined, and intellectual, whereas Joseph was more introverted. Beauford had been seen studying art in Boston since 1924, through the encouragement and support of Lloyd Branson, an elderly white artist in Knoxville. Joseph recalled that even while making art as children, Beauford and he had a healthy and friendly rivalry. According to Joseph, Beauford was slightly envious when the younger brother won fifty cents from a teacher, Mrs. J.S. Dailey, for a drawing he had done of a sparrow.8

Many factors led to Joseph's decision to move to New York; his experiences as a sketch artist while a hobo, his childhood interest in art, and the fact that there were few career opportunities for a black artist in a Southern town. Also significant was Joseph's feeling that if his brother could be an artist, so could he.

In 1930, Joseph left for New York City. He spent the first two nights with his brother Beauford, who had moved there a year earlier after graduating from art school in Boston. But, the two brothers had grown apart and disagreed on many issues. Joseph decided it would be best if he moved on, so, he went to Harlem. Upon arriving in New York, Joseph enrolled at the Art Students League and while there learned that most of the students and teachers were living in lower Manhattan. If lower Manhattan was where the artists were, that's where Delaney wanted to be, too. He only stayed in Harlem for a short time before getting on a bus heading downtown. When he saw a neighborhood he liked, he jumped off the bus, and stayed in that same area of Manhattan for the next fifty-six years.

Joseph began studying at the Art Students League with his first instructor, Alexander Brooke. During this time, he also worked as a model in the classes of the famous artist and teacher, Kenneth Hayes Miller. In approximately 1932, he studied with Thomas Hart Benton. Joseph Delaney, Bruce Mitchell, Henry Stair, and Jackson Pollock were just a few of the students studying with Thomas Hart Benton at the time. Benton was a very successful contemporary artist, known for his outspokenness and independent thought. In class, Benton stressed traditional technical fundamentals such as grounds, color theory and egg medium.9 Benton urged his students to study historical compositions of grouped figures. Joseph Delaney said about studying with Benton, "Benton had us study Botticelli, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, and Cezanne, etc. ... patterns of their composition and color so that we could be sure of where we were going when we set up a design and put it in. Now he didn't suggest more than that we should follow certain procedural methods of compositions and openings of the canvas - he would emphasize that. so you didn't crowd your vision looking in. And he would say 'bumps and hollows' rather than the names for all the anatomy and muscles. And he was a very, very cagey person. I think he would like that ... and Benton will be with me always."10

Delaney felt that Benton taught traditional fundamentals as a basis from which one could progress to painting with individual expression. He believed that some of Jackson Pollock's early abstract compositions were based on what Benton taught about composition; the "bumps and hollows" found a place in Pollock's swirls and drips. It was Benton's ideas on art, his strong independence, his strong commitment to America combined with the American wave in art that left a lasting impression on Joseph Delaney. Although Benton's ideas at the time had this major impact, Joseph felt that he needed to learn more about the figure - anatomy - so he enrolled in the class of George Bridgeman, a well-known anatomy artist and one of the great anatomy teachers of all time. Joseph learned his technique of drawing a figure quickly and accurately from George Bridgeman. But, it was the formal and conceptual attitudes of Thomas Hart Benton and the general philosophy of the Art Students League that created the desire in Delaney to make a lifetime commitment to painting the American scene.

The Depression created a desire to return to American values and to look at the self-sufficiencies of this country. It prompted increased exploration of American themes. This belief and this commitment to "paint American" was one of the rigorous philosophies of the Art Students League. The American art scene was imbued with the idea that an American artist should be concerned with content, rather than with the aesthetic issues being explored in Europe. Thomas Hart Benton promulgated numerous theories on the democratic nature of American painting. Matthew Baigell states that a person whose writings influenced Thomas Hart Benton greatly was the French critic and historian, Hippolyte Taine, whose works were first published in English in 1868. "Taine explained the development of art in social and environmental terms, believing that an artist was conditioned by his race, his surroundings, and the epoch in which he lived. To understand the taste, style, character, and sentiments of an artist, Taine concluded that we must seek for them in the social and intellectual conditions of the community in the midst of which he lived." 11 Joseph Delaney realized that his own background as a Southern black and Benton's experiences throughout the Midwest fit perfectly with this theory. It did not discriminate against him as a black artist, but encouraged him to paint that which he knew.

As Delaney once stated in an interview about Thomas Hart Benton, "Well, it came about, I suppose, being under the influence of Thomas Hart Benton and naturally his feelings for the Midwest, the Great West and its local people - and my own background - in church, my father was a minister ... having that persuasive early bringing up amongst poor black people and things positive to them interested me. Somehow Benton's influence and my own background merged ... I was interested in preserving my religious background and also maybe just New York City itself. In 1931, the Washington Square Art show pulled me out into the open, and I loved people."12

The Art Students League and their instructors were committed to "American Art" and by definition encompassed all the ethnic groups that constitute the United States. Therefore, Delaney did not feel that he was discriminated against while at the Art Student League. Although he did on occasion receive harsh criticism from instructors about his efforts as a student, so did the other students. Delaney related the story that once George Bridgeman totally erased one of his drawings, sat down with the pad himself and drew the figure "as only Bridgeman could have."13 Bridgeman wanted Delaney to look for specific things which Delaney was not achieving. Delaney said that Bridgeman did this to the other students as well.

After three years at the Art Students League, Joseph quit being a full-time student; although he maintained a lifetime membership, attending the members' drawing session every afternoon. Delaney exhibited in the inaugural Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit in 1931. He enjoyed the comraderie with other artists and the contact with the supporting public. He said, "I like the atmosphere of the Outdoor Art Show, and I paint as hard to take stuff out there as I would to take it to show in any museum. Doing portraits just happened as a result of talking with interested people and as a result of sitting there on the street. The artists on my street at that time had no interest in portrait work, but the portrait sketch artist became a tradition of the show within a few years. A portrait likeness is recording an expression of a human being. It's a contact with a person who is exposed to you and trusts you."14

For over forty years he did drawings of people as a sketch artist and tried to sell his paintings at this event. In her book, The Afro-American Artist, Elsa Honing fine mentions that Delaney did drawings of many well-known people who visited the Washington Square Art Show including Ertha Kitt, Chester Arthur III, Arlene Francis, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Tallulah Bankhead.15 This show in Washington Square provided the major outlet for the exhibition of Delaney's work.

Joseph's student days parallel the Great Depression and our government's efforts to heal that economic illness. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated many programs, including federal work programs for the unemployed. The arts were not overlooked, and, in 1935, the W.P.A. (Work's Progress Administration) Artists Project was initiated. To qualify, a petitioner had to prove that he or she was a professional artist. Joseph met the qualifications because of his association with the Art Students League and participation in the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit. His initial assignment was at the Children's Playground at 134th Street and 5th Avenue, where he worked fifteen hours a week for a standard payment of $23.60. He was later transferred to Snyder Avenue Boys Club in Brooklyn. Due to political changes and constant restructuring of the project, Delaney received 5 "pink slips" signifying dismissal. A "pink slip" was a device to cut down on the bulging relief rolls after a W.P.A.er had eighteen months of work.16 Many artists who received one never came back, but not Delaney. Delaney worked with Norman Lewis on the Edward Laning mural, Story of the Recorded Word, now located in the New York Public Library. Other projects on which he worked included drawings of Paul Revere's silver, American textiles, Dutch tapestries, and Chippendale furniture for the Index of American Design for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of this experience, Joseph stated, "It required exact precision and our copy was a little better than a photograph. It proved to be great training. I'm very happy for that."17

In 1942, Joseph Delaney received the Julius Rosenwald grant of $1200 for travel up and down the Eastern seaboard. He traveled from Percy Rock, Maine, all the way to Charleston, South Carolina. He liked the life in the cities and was especially awed by the city of Charleston. He was impressed by the explosive liberation of the sailors and seamen who had been at sea for many weeks. When they returned to port, "They were real streetwalkers."18 The scene of Charleston with its nightly parade of drunken sailors and prostitutes, mixed with the daytime parade of fish markets, shoppers, and tourists provided rich subject matter for Delaney's sketches and later paintings.

After the Works' Progress Administration's Federal Art Project was terminated in 1943, Delaney supported himself with various jobs, i.e. washing dishes, modeling, pressing clothes, etc., and through welfare. He worked as a sketch artist for the New Orleans Exhibit and later the Ghana Exhibit at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. In the summer of 1968, Delaney taught for the Art Students League at a workshop sponsored by the Ford Foundation at the Vermont Academy. From 1978-80, he participated in the CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) project, the second largest federally funded project since the W.P.A. Delaney was assigned "artist in residence" at the Henry Street Settlement to document activities there. This two-year period provided him not only with financial support, but with inspiration for new drawings and canvases, including "Around Henry Street" illustrated in this catalog. The CETA project was terminated in 1980 and Delaney, at the age of 76, returned full-time to his studio.

Delaney lived for the next sixteen years in a small, cluttered two-room apartment and studio on Union Square. Numerous bundles of sketch pads and countless canvases that document his fifty-six years of art production, stacks of paintings by his deceased brother Beauford which were rescued from France by Joseph, and his own "jumble" of personal effects, afford him little room to paint. Therefore, a great deal of his creative outlet during this period consisted of sketching around the city and drawing during his daily visit to the members' life drawing class at the Art Students League.

Joseph Delaney was always interested in figurative art. From drawing as a child, sketching portraits and landscapes as a young hobo and as a student, to painting as a mature artist, the figure with its forceful and ever-changing compositional qualities, always motivated his art. His inspiration came from life, not aesthetic issues or the ever-changing art movements. In fact, since his W.P.A. assignment at the Metropolitan Museum, Joseph spent little time in museums or galleries and less time following aesthetic issues prophesied and debated in art publications. It seems Delaney knew very early what and how he wanted to paint, and his work progressed, but did not change fundamentally.

David Driskell has stated, "Most of Joseph Delaney's painting appears to be telling a story, presenting aspects of contemporary life in America. His style, with its freshness and directness, is that of a man who looks at people more than art, for he paints what he observes in life, not what he has been taught."19 Studying with the "Three B's" (Brooke, Benton, Bridgeman) 20 at the Art Student League helped Delaney strengthen his drawing ability and solidified his commitment to figurative subjects. However, it did little to change Delaney's visual storytelling. Rather, it intensified it.

The academic and almost obligatory attitudes toward painting American themes and subjects that were encouraged by the Art Students League and championed by Thomas Hart Benton were enthusiastically embraced by Delaney. Driskell refers to Benton's philosophy that "... no American art can come to those who do not live an American life, who do not have an American psychology and who cannot find in America justification of their lives."21 From this, Driskell believes that "The black artist could feel, ironically, that he was the most American of all since he had not chosen other alternatives and almost always existentially viewed himself in the American context."22 The acceptance of these attitudes led Delaney to a lifelong and steadfast commitment to his art and career, regardless of fame or fortune.

Economic success always seemed to elude Delaney. Except for a few individuals, this lack of financial support has been and continues to be one of the greatest difficulties facing most black visual artists. There has been little patronage from whites or blacks for the black artist. Patronage is developed by art dealers who successfully promote their artists and by the "Art Press" through review and criticisms. Unfortunately, many black artists, including Delaney, have been shunned by the "Blue Chip" dealers and ignored by the press. As Benny Andrews states in a recent interview, "Black people don't buy a lot of art, so the galleries don't exhibit a lot of it for sale; and if the galleries don't exhibit works, the odds are slim of them getting critical reviews in art industry magazines, so there are not a lot of thriving black artists."23 Delaney also said that he has experienced his share of racial prejudice: "Years ago, I walked into a famous gallery on E. 57th Street with a painting under my arm (to sell), and the man who ran the gallery looked at it and asked who was the artist. When I said I was the artist, he said that neither the owner nor the manager was there. I will never forget that. But when the doors are closed, you come in another way.24

The Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit, for over forty years, provided Delaney with "another way" to develop public awareness of his work. It was an alternate way of providing financial support since Delaney did not have a commercial gallery pushing sales for him. Not only for the visiting public, but for the scrutiny of his peers as well, participation in this event motivated Delaney to exhibit his best work. Throughout the years the show changed. Many of the earlier participants, including Jackson Pollack, quit showing as they found galleries and dealers that provided commercial outlets for their work. The number of galleries on 57th Street and Madison Avenue increased, providing a stronger art market. As the serious and committed artists gave way to the "Sunday painter," the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit lost its importance for the serious artist and few continued to participate. With this loss of participants, the visiting public also changed. Delaney, who exhibited in the first show in 1931, became sensitive to uncomplimentary comments and insulting offers for paintings. He said, "I was being offered $10.00 for a painting while all my peers were selling in the galleries for thousands."25 In the early seventies, Delaney quit participating in this event that he had loved so well. So well, in fact, that in 1968 he published a booklet titled, Thirty-Six Years Exhibiting in Washington Square Outdoor Art Show. In 1968, Delaney wrote and financed this forty-page personal history of this exhibit. His experiences are interwoven with his philosophy and social commentary.

Delaney was influenced by life - people - and the city. Although he spoke often of his affection for his hometown, Knoxville, the city of New York is the place Delaney loved - the architecture, the crowds, the parades, the artists, and all that this city offers. Delaney said, "The curtain goes up on the stage of life every time we walk into the street. In spite of New York's being the most congested city I have been in, and know about, by and large, it's just people on the move. I have enjoyed more than I can say seeing people and hearing them speak about things they love and enjoy."26

The city influenced Delaney more than any particular artist or movement. When asked of his early influences he stated, "I think of Benton as a great teacher, an academic perfectionist in technique and craft. I feel the same way about George Bridgeman, who was an anatomist and also about Alexander Brooke. But I think somewhere along the line, in developing my own work and my own taste, I came to know and love the crowd I was with - like the Washington Square group, the WPA artists and the whole parade of things being done together."27

In the same interview, he was asked if there was any influence from the Mexicans - Orozco, Siqueiros and Rivera - that could have transferred from Benton to him and he replied, "Well, at the time, Rivera and the other Mexicans in the cities had a big audience in the United States. So did European and Asiatic artists. Kuniyoshi was a good example. One couldn't miss the wide range of influences. If you were a student and a careful observer, like it or not, the world was at that time very open to progressive thinking. So I don't feel any painter could have avoided running into some of the immovable positions of some of the painters of that period. I was no exception."28

Delaney's intuitive expression, directness, exaggerated posing of subjects, strong linear elements, bizarre content, and reappearing caricature are qualities found in numerous historical artists such as Goya, Ensor, Van Gogh, Kokoschka and Daumier and in Delaney's contemporaries such as Alice Neel, Jacob Lawrence and Isabell Bishop. However, to align Delaney's lifelong body of work with another artist would be a misrepresentation. His vision and style uniquely integrated his experiences as a black man and his perception of the human scene.

Delaney did not let lack of success deter his creative momentum and production. He lived during a time when this country was openly racially segregated, and opportunities for a black visual artist were limited. Black artist such as Henry O. Tanner and Joe's own brother, Beauford, chose to immigrate to France where they were treated with personal dignity and respect as artists. Moreover, in Europe, there existed a commercial outlet and needed patronage for their work. However, Delaney chose to stay in America, in New York, the city that was his inspiration. Although he visited Paris approximately six times, the "charm of the Champs Elysees did not compare with the beat of Seventh Avenue."29

Delaney's political and social positions are indicated through the subjects he chose to draw or paint. As a visual reporter, he did not allow himself to get personally involved, but seemed to say, "Look, everyone, see what is happening!" According to his lifelong friend, Curtis Hyatte, Delaney never discussed politics or any other formal issues even though they spent much time together over the years.30 His work reflects, in a unique way, his concerns for the human condition.

Although Delaney remained an optimist and did not dwell on bitterness, he believed his work was overlooked and is deserving of a respectable place in history. "There is no reason why every major museum doesn't have a piece of my art ... Unfortunately, progress goes slow in an ethnic prejudicial society. The art establishment still knows the kind of black art they want ... If they want these guys who paint blacks running or doing something else like that, that's the way it is."31

There are black artists, but not a "black art" stated Delaney. This term suggested for him, "symbolism of ethnic separation (that) is very wicked to me. A society geared to false representation only feeds the poison."32 Asked to participate in a "Black Art Show," Delaney politely declined saying that it is hard for an artist to exhibit, whether he is black or white, and this racial categorization does not seem democratic.33

Delaney believed in the importance of the visual artists' contribution to our culture and saw a need for various forms of support from local, state, and federal sources and from the private sector. He had no envy for artists who found success and applauded their good fortune. When asked what he thought of contemporary artists getting fifty to a hundred thousand dollars for a painting, he replied, "That's great! Artists make a contribution to our society and should be rewarded for it."34

Although Delaney enjoyed the friendship of many individuals, he was nevertheless a self-proclaimed loner and never married. He explained, "I just never had enough security for that. I try not to touch on poverty. It's a matter of attitude. If you're a painter, you have to stay with something. You learn to use disadvantage to advantage. I don't have any heat in my place. I don't want it now. I feel good at my age. I live off oxygen."35

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