After growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and attending art school in Boston, Beauford Delaney arrived in New York in 1929 in time for the rich stimulation of the Harlem Renaissance. He soon became a popular and respected figure among uptown artists and musicians, Greenwich Village bohemians, and the circle of artists centered around the midtown gallery of Alfred Stieglitz. Both his cityscapes and portraits of this period reflect his joy in this dynamic milieu as well as the bold innovations he brought to traditional genres of oil painting.
This portrait of James Baldwin was made when he and Delaney had only recently met, and the aspiring writer was just twenty-one years old. The intensity of the image recalls the portraits of Vincent van Gogh, whom Delaney revered. The piercing eyes, the strongly defined nose and lips, and the trunklike neck give Baldwin the unforgettable presence of an icon, as does the close-up viewpoint of the composition. The daringly juxtaposed passages of raw color radiate with the energy of the mind and heart of this young man, the future author of such novels as Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952) and Giovanni’s Room (1956).
Baldwin, who later wrote eloquently about Delaney’s paintings, would call the artist his “principal witness.” The term could be understood literally: over the course of the next thirty years, Delaney portrayed Baldwin in at least ten drawings and paintings. In the 1950s they both joined the growing circle of African American expatriates in Paris, where they remained lifelong friends. Delaney’s move to France explains in part the belated development of his reputation in the United States. In the company of the Museum’s portraits by artists such as Thomas Eakins, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Mary Cassatt, and Alice Neel, Portrait of James Baldwin powerfully affirms Delaney’s distinguished contribution to American modernism. Ann Tempkin, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary (2002), p. 109.
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