We continue James Baldwin week here at the Daily during the last few days of Black History Month. Today we celebrate his mentor, artist Beauford Delaney.
At sixteen years old, James Baldwin was skipping school regularly and failing several of his classes, despite the fact that he had already begun to impress his peers with his writing for the school magazine. Concerned by his disengagement, one of Baldwin’s close friends, Emile Capouya encouraged him to meet with a local Greenwich Village painter named Beauford Delaney who lived only a few blocks away from Baldwin’s after-school job. Though Delaney was nearly 20 years older than Baldwin, the two immediately formed a close bond. Baldwin was entranced with Delaney’s life as an artist and later wrote that Delaney was “living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist.”
Amidst a fraught relationship with his father, Baldwin had found a mentor in Delaney, as well as a strong paternal figure. Delaney often took Baldwin to galleries and jazz concerts to meet the local artists of the day. A youth minister from the ages of 14 until 17, Baldwin had been brought up to think of jazz as being deeply rooted in sin and depravity. Delaney quickly debunked that notion when he began playing jazz and blues records for the teenager on his scratchy phonograph. Before long, Baldwin had re-tuned his ear and was avidly listening to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Bessie Smith.
As Baldwin matured, he grew increasingly embittered by the pervasive racism he faced living in America. At 24 he decided to settle in France where attitudes were more progressive and he was offered more opportunities as an African-American artist. Despite the fact that Baldwin had arrived in Paris with only $40 and initially spoke no French, over time he flourished and began writing his best works. All the while, he continued corresponding with Delaney whose art was steadily gaining exposure and acclaim, yet Delaney was still living in overwhelmingly destitute conditions. In 1953, five years after Baldwin fled America, Delaney too decided to settle in France.
By this time Delaney’s mental state had begun to deteriorate, his having developed a crippling sense of paranoia and depression. Baldwin proved to be an immense support for Delaney during this time, promptly introducing him to new artistic circles in the Left Bank. When Baldwin eventually moved to the South of France, Delaney became a frequent guest and would often spend hours-on-end painting in Baldwin’s garden. Over the course of their nearly 40 year friendship, Delaney painted numerous portraits of Baldwin. When Delaney died in 1979, Baldwin worked closely with the painter’s younger brother, Joseph, to preserve and promote his artwork.
Three years before Baldwin’s own death, he spoke with deep reverence about his early mentorship with Delaney when interviewed by the Paris Review: “I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, ‘Look.’ I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, ‘Look again,’ which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.”
Portraits by Delaney
“The first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. In a warmer time, a less blasphemous place, [Beauford] would have been recognized as my Master and I as his Pupil. He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion. An absolute integrity: I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken but I never saw him bow. Perhaps I should not say, flatly, what I believe – that he is a great painter – among the very greatest; but I do know that great art can only be created out of love, and that no greater lover has ever held a brush.” – James Baldwin