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Saturday, June 22, 2019

Beauford and the Flapper Girl

by Maija Brennan

Maija Brennan is the Wells International Foundation's 2019 summer intern. A rising senior at Smith College, she majors in French and art history with a concentration in museum studies. Her eight-week internship focuses on researching the life and art of painter Beauford Delaney and creating an online exhibition of a selection of his works.

Beauford Delaney’s numerous and vastly diverse portraits were not only a way to capture the outer and inner vision of the subject, but also a means for him to express personal thoughts and emotions. During the first formative years of his new life in New York City, which began in 1929, he earned income by drawing portraits of the dancers at Billy Pierce’s Dancing School and the high society women who came through the establishment. These pencil and charcoal drawings reflect the classical training he received during his Boston years, when he learned how to realistically render facial features.

Charcoal of a Black Woman (1929)
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

Charcoal of a Black Woman (Flapper Girl) from 1929 is representative of this period in Beauford’s life. This drawing is a profile of a girl adorned in a cloche hat, the headpiece symbolic of flappers from the decade. The term “flapper” was invented during the 1920s to describe a new wave of Western society women who were defying the societal norms and behavior of the era. Flapper girls were characterized by their short dresses and skirts (a departure from the more modest women’s fashion of the 19th century), their short bobbed hair, and their love of jazz music and dancing. Seen as more flamboyant and promiscuous than what was acceptable for women in the past, flappers represented a movement of women taking control of their own autonomy and sexuality.

Flapper Dresses by Lidiqnati
Gold Yellow Dress
FANDOM Community CC-BY-SA license

When we think of depictions of flapper girls today, even in 2019, our minds oftentimes follow this narrative. John Held, a well-known cartoonist during the 1920s, popularized the image that we associate them with in the 21st century: brazen and free-spirited girls dancing with and kissing men. With this in mind, Beauford’s portrait of a flapper girl becomes a thought-provoking one, as its technique and depiction contrast starkly with other illustrations of these women that were being produced at the time.

Delia Delaney's photo of Beauford
Fair use claim

This photograph of a young Beauford Delaney, which belonged to his mother, Delia, creates an interesting juxtaposition with the above portrait. Even at first glance, the physical similarities between Beauford’s profile and those of the flapper girl are apparent. There is no photographic evidence of the woman in the charcoal drawing to compare with this artistic portrayal, but her prominent nose and slightly protruding upper lip bear a striking resemblance to Beauford’s features in Delia’s photograph. One can imagine that he used his own facial profile as a guide for the portrait.

Beauford’s portraits of women are far fewer in number than the ones of men, and while there is no clear reason for why this is, Charcoal of a Black Woman (Flapper girl) provides a platform for an analysis of his sentiments or wariness regarding modern women of his time. In Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney, David Leeming writes that Beauford was often concerned or “offended” by his brother’s “excessive interest in women,” believing it would “drain his natural talent.” The opposing sexualities between Beauford and Joseph proved to be a point of contention, as Joe, in the same manner in which his brother didn’t trust women, did not want to associate with Beauford’s queer companions.

Eloise Johnson wrote an article on the concept of the “femme fatale” titled “Out of the Ashes: Cultural Identity and Marginalization in the Art of Beauford Delaney” for Notes in the History of Art. In it, she notes that the 19th century’s notion of promiscuous women, or “femme fatales,” was that they were capable of eroding a man’s natural and creative talents through their allure. It is possible that Beauford was wary of such women, the ones he saw in Joe’s life and in his daily excursions around New York City. Flapper girls were the “femme fatales” of the 1920s, and his portrait of this one may represent a desire to “mute” certain qualities associated with the flapper girl stereotype. Her cloche hat is visible, but that is all the information readable to discern her as a flapper. Her facial features are rather masculine, as noted in the comparison with Delia Delaney’s photograph. She is visible only from the neck up; her fashion choice is not rendered in the illustration. The bright colors Beauford became renowned for in later years were not part of his visual vocabulary at this point in time, yet it is interesting to note that he made the decision to portray this flapper girl in black charcoal, rather than pastels. Such a choice in medium creates more of a somber effect, not what is typically imagined when thinking of the vivacious colors associated with flappers of the 20s. His subject appears immersed in thought, engaged in a moment of stillness from a life of jiving and smoking in jazz clubs.

Beauford’s portrait of a flapper girl from 1929 is a fascinating juxtaposition to the culture and media representations of flappers from the era. Whether a subtle indicator of Beauford’s own sentiments revolving flapper girls, or an attempt to subvert the narrative often associated with them, Charcoal of a Black Woman (Flapper Girl) is meaningful nonetheless in the chronology of his life as an artist and portraitist.

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