Beauford Delaney’s life-spanning friendship with James Baldwin is well known. A rewarding topic of focus for me is the dozen or so portraits he did of Baldwin, his muse. They give us unique glimpses into specific moments in Delaney’s art making practice but, even more, the incontestable truth of how we construct identity, how we make it visible and how we experience a sense of belonging.
Dr. St. John also mentions how Beauford's subjects are often painted in strikingly different colors.
Beauford's Gravesite Ceremony - October 2010
© Discover Paris!
In reading this letter, I was reminded of how many portraits Beauford painted of James Baldwin, how colorful they are, and how different they are from each other. Dr. St. John graciously consented to comment on two of them - Dark Rapture (1941) and a 1965 portrait of Baldwin - and to share further thoughts on Beauford's work.
About these portraits, Dr. St. John states:
Both portraits, Dark Rapture (James Baldwin), 1941, oil on canvas or board, 34 x 28 inches, and James Baldwin, 1965, oil on canvas, 30 x 21 inches, are modest in dimensions. Both paintings are signed and dated. Their intimate scales draw us more closely to the virtuosity of Delaney’s painterly touch. They are created with straightforward media and give viewers an immediate sense of the paintings as physical objects.
(1941) Oil on canvas
Portrait of James Baldwin*
(1965) Oil on canvas
Dark Rapture is an especially dynamic and luminous painting that shows Beauford Delaney’s preferred palette, a range of colors and white chosen for symbolic, emotional and aesthetic reasons. It is the first portrait that Beauford Delaney did of James Baldwin and it marks a new and original approach to the male nude, a subject generally less frequently addressed by artists.
It is a composition that combines gesture and chromatic intensity with the silhouette of Baldwin, one side in shadow lit from the right, against a background of light emanating from color. It is a deeply affecting work, one of a number of portraits that Delaney created of his muse. Pieced together, they record the personal journeys of two great artists and form a collective field of memory.
While the 1965 portrait of James Baldwin, completed decades later, is not nearly as explosive as Dark Rapture, it is charged with human presence. The isolated, self-contained image of Baldwin is the special intersection of the world of light and the subjective consciousness that Beauford Delaney brought to his portraits. It is a supremely expressive portrait in which the eyes, the most intimate and powerful feature of the face, act like magnets, bringing us close to the mind, soul and emotions of a great writer who finds his place in history through his literature as well as the unique visual language of his mentor, Beauford Delaney.
Beauford Delaney worked with the materiality of paint with color and texture applied in an abstract gestural style, filling the entire pictorial space. His tactile surfaces of brilliant colors are prime carriers of light and space and it is in his use of yellow - ochre, cadmium, lemon - that we discover the substance of light in relation to spirit. It is the concreteness of his color rather than its illusionistic potential that is the essence of Delaney’s art.
*Beauford's 1965 portrait of Baldwin was shown at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1978 during the first retrospective of his work. It is Number 18 in the catalog of the show, and is simply listed as Portrait of James Baldwin. The provenance is shown as "Private Collection of Beauford Delaney: Paris."