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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Beauford: Black Man and Painter

When Beauford’s friends and I were deciding upon the inscription for his tombstone, a suggestion was made to refer to him as an African-American painter. This idea was quickly rejected, however, when one of our group reminded us that Beauford did not wish to be remembered as black painter (or even as an American painter) because it placed him in a subcategory.

The following excerpt from a letter written by painter Charley Boggs, one of Beauford’s closest friends, corroborates this:
"I have just talked with Madame du Closel on the phone. Here are some considerations which she and I feel are important: B(eauford) has spoken to us both about the idea of "representing his race" as a painter. B wants to be known as a painter, not as a Negro painter. I realize that this is a touchy subject but I hope you will understand. Beauford is, of course, race-conscious. How can he help it? But he is not, nor has ever been a spokesman for his race. He may protest privately but has no desire to protest publicly. There is a difference. In any event, as painter, he prefers to remain anonymous when it comes to his color."
The letter is dated Monday, November 5, 1962. Sylvain Briet (brother of Philippe Briet of the now defunct Philippe Briet Gallery in New York) found it among the Beauford Delaney papers of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and graciously shared this excerpt with me. It is written to Lynn Stone regarding a proposal for a Beauford Delaney exhibition in New York in the fall of 1963. Madame du Closel was a close personal friend of Beauford who helped him a great deal during his bouts with mental illness.

Boggs says that “Beauford is, of course, race-conscious.” We can see this in Beauford’s art. He not only depicted blacks in his figurative work and his portraiture, but also drew upon the rich culture of African statuary to create numerous vibrant paintings. Yet he did not limit himself to portraying black people or Afro-centric themes in his work because his art was a reflection of his life. Beauford’s œuvre speaks for itself.

Beauford Delaney

Oil on masonite (c. 1945)
Collection Brattle Associates
Art for invitation card for the 1994 Philippe Briet retrospective entitled
Beauford Delaney: The New York Years
Courtesy of Sylvain Briet

It is natural, even pathological, for us Americans to classify ourselves first and foremost according to our race. Though I believe that we would be better off rejecting this unfortunate, deeply ingrained tradition, I also believe that it is virtually impossible. Yet I understand and empathize with Beauford’s viewpoint, and intend to honor it. Therefore, though I may refer to Beauford the man as an African American or as a black man, I will never refer to him as a black painter or an African-American painter in this blog. I will also never personally refer to his work as African-American art.

The inscription on his tombstone will simply refer to him as “Peintre / Painter.”

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