Gibson was one of many whose portrait Beauford painted. He vividly recalls Beauford's hotel room on the top floor of what was then called the Hotel des Ecoles on rue Delambre in the Montparnasse district in Paris. Beauford had transformed the room into a studio by draping old white sheets over the dark furniture to provide the light he loved.
Beauford Delaney was a master and friend who taught me how to see, hear, and understand a lot about the arts, from jazz to Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson and the spirituals to the European and American classics, from the glories of African sculpture to Mondrian (who also loved jazz). Walking through any museum with Beauford, whether in New York or Paris, was a guided tour in art history and a revelation of the profound meaning of what we saw. He taught about art just as he could teach you to hear and enjoy musicians as diverse as Schoenberg and Fats Waller.
I came to know Beauford after reading Henry Miller’s “The Amazing and Invariable Beauford Delaney” in 1947. I had indeed been amazed and dashed off a hasty letter of admiration to Beauford at 131 Greene Street—the address Miller repeated several times in that essay—in hope that it might guide curious dealers and potential patrons to his ramshackle loft studio on the edge of Greenwich Village.
Beauford replied and an exchange of letters followed, until one day not long after, Beauford rang the door of the West Philadelphia home where my grandmother and I lived. My grandmother was quite surprised and warily let him in. Beauford seemed even more surprised to discover that I was a 16-year boy studying at Central High School. Beauford had come to Philadelphia because he had been named “Artist of the Year” at the Pyramid Club, an association of black, primarily middle class, people. They gathered together not because they were snobs, but because many local restaurants would not serve African Americans in what was mistakenly taken to be a “liberal” Northern Quaker city.
Beauford was not shocked, and certainly did not inform my grandmother, when I in turn arrived one day a few months later at his door on Greene Street with my first serious girlfriend who happened to be a Quaker English teacher 20 years older than I. “Now you really are a man,” he quietly commented, smiling.
Proud of his African origins and well aware of the inhumanity of slavery in the transatlantic world, Beauford could quote with approval both W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. Yet he was not a racist or a black nationalist, and included white and black men and women among his close friends all his life.
Just as he was pleased for me and my girlfriend that day on Greene Street, he was also pleased (though fearful of dire consequences) when another slightly older friend, James Baldwin, revealed without apology his sexual orientation. Beauford did many portraits of Jimmy, including his great nude portrait of 1941 of Baldwin entitled Dark Rapture. Some might now call this painting “afromodernist,” but Beauford’s style evolved over the years to his final abstractions based on the admixture of Paris’ greyish light and spots of color.
Beauford's favourite author was Proust, whom he read and reread in the old Scott Moncrief translation of Remembrance of Things Past, followed by Andre Gide, whose journals he loved for their frankness.
The mystery of Beauford’s slow decline in Paris, which had become his home (though he never denied his origins in the American South), remains for me a sad and tragic mystery that has not been explained to my satisfaction. At least he was always treated as a human being in Paris, even in the hospital where he died, and where he rejected the gift of pastels the nurses offered him in hope they might restore the great creativity they had heard of from his visiting friends. “No,” he said firmly, pushing them away, “I am still owed money for my work.”
Indeed, I remain in Beauford’s debt for the paintings he gave to me, and all that I learned from him about art and life.
– Richard Gibson