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Saturday, July 13, 2019

Parisian Café Culture and Beauford Delaney

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.

Induction into the café scene in Paris has been a rite of passage for artists and intellectuals from around the world for over two centuries. A hub for heated discourse, the exchange of new ideas, and a place to build up your network of connections, cafés have been prominent pillars in French society since before the French Revolution.

Café Procope in 1743
Image in public domain

Coffee arrived in Western countries in the 17th century as a result of political and imperial expeditions. Consuming coffee was, at first, reserved for the dominant social classes. During the age of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, innovative ideas surrounding the political and social spheres in France were exchanged amongst revolutionaries over coffee and alcohol in salons littéraires. By 1909, Paris alone housed 30,000 cafés.

Such “micro-societies” remained at the forefront of fostering new schools of thought in the arts and politics throughout the twentieth century. Expats from other countries began to understand the importance of cafés in finding a community, from German avant-garde artists before World War I to the “Lost Generation” of the 1920s.

Members of the Lost Generation
The Murphys, Pauline Pfeiffer, and the Hemingways
Image in public domain

Beauford Delaney, an African-American Abstract Expressionist painter who traded his artistic life in New York for Paris in 1953, found solace and solidarity in the Parisian cafés he frequented until his death in 1979. It was during his first night in Paris, hungry and restless, that Beauford walked into the Dôme Café on the corner of rue Delambre and boulevard du Montparnasse, returning often after that point. This and other Parisian cafés in Montparnasse and Saint-Germain-des-Près became crucial to Beauford’s well-being and happiness throughout the 26 years he lived in the city.

As an African-American gay man who struggled intensely with his mental and emotional health, the various social circles that existed within the cafés dispersed throughout Paris offered a refuge for fraternity, stimulating conversation, and oftentimes a discounted or free meal when he couldn’t afford one himself as a impoverished painter. The community provided by Parisian café culture for artists and writers of all persuasions, and for African-American artists and writers in particular, was central to Beauford Delaney’s life and the birthplace for many valued relationships he cultivated during his time in France.

Coffee cup and sugar cube
Mickael Favier
Creative Commons License

The strong historical precedent for African-American presence in Paris cafés began in the aftermath of the First World War, when expats flocked to Montmartre for conversations with like-minded individuals. Tyler Stovall described this black experience in Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light, stating that by 1919, musical opportunities for black jazz musicians were drying up in the US due to the wartime industrial boom coming to an end. Jazz was becoming wildly popular in France and in Paris, and for many African Americans who relocated, it was a quick way to gain fame and fortune. Montmartre in the 1920s was seen as Harlem transplanted, the jazz clubs being where black and white people alike went for a good time.

Places such as Le Grand Duc and Chez Florence, clubs owned by African Americans, became notorious not only amongst those in Montmartre, but other circles as well; Scott Fitzgerald and other members of the Lost Generation flocked to the area from Montparnasse, knowing it was where the best parties were occurring. Fitzgerald loved Ada Louise Smith (“Bricktop”), an African-American singer, so much that he included her in one of his fictional pieces and bragged about “discovering” her before his other friends.

Ada "Bricktop" Smith
1934 Carl Van Vechten
Image in public domain

The Flea Pit, a café in Montmartre, became a staple for African-American musicians. They would meet there at any point in the day to share a drink and each other’s company.

Quote about the Flea Pit
from Becoming American in Paris
Brooke L. Blower

While this era was not the first for African Americans in Paris or for café culture, it was a time where black creatives could thrive in spaces that were typically dominated by their white peers.

The black community that developed in Paris during the 20s was virtually destroyed as a result of the Depression and the Second World War, and many African Americans recrossed the Atlantic during the 1930s. The community slowly rebuilt itself in the 40s and 50s, this time across the Seine in Montparnasse and Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Herbert Gentry, an African-American painter who sailed to France with Beauford on the SS Liberté, said it best when he said that “it was the Americans who really made Montparnasse.”

Herb Gentry in Paris
c. 1949
Image courtesy of Mary Anne Rose

The artistic community on the Left Bank thrived after World War II. African-American artists and writers began holding court at many of the cafés the white expats and intellectuals frequented during the same period: the Closerie de Lilas, the Coupole, and Café de Flore. Café Tournon and Café Monaco, however, were spots known for its African-American following. Richard Wright and James Baldwin were among those who could be seen every day engrossed in conversation nursing a cup of coffee (or something stronger), and not getting as much writing or work done as they had anticipated. Paris Noir cites the journal of Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, a black South Carolina native who moved to Paris in 1958. She writes that two hours after landing, a “brother from Senegal” invited her to have coffee at Café Dupont in the 15th arrondissement. She was in awe at finding a “gang” so quickly after arriving.

Beauford Delaney was one of those Americans that made Montparnasse the lively, culturally rich environment that it was known for. The Dôme Café, the place he stumbled upon hours after arriving in Paris, became one of his usual haunts. He loved the Dôme for its affordable prices at the time, yet was often invited to the Coupole (the most expensive of the Montparnasse cafés at the time) as well by his European artist friends. Along with the Dôme and the Coupole, he could be spotted at Café de Flore and Café Tournon, popular spots for friends in his circle. He would spend hours at a table with them, doling out pieces of advice and sharing stories of his upbringing in Tennessee.

Beauford wrote on his adoration for Parisian café culture shortly after moving:

“Some of the cafés never closed. I had never seen such life and could not suppress an eagerness to join into this rhythm. . . . Nights and days we would come together at mealtimes and swap our various experiences or relate how this activity in life and art were fused, what this group or that group thought of this or that school of painting, writing, music.”

Through the relationships formed in Paris cafés, Beauford was being intellectually stimulated like never before, generating new ideas and beliefs surrounding art and the kind of work he wanted to produce. Even in his later years, when his delusions and paranoia were getting the better of him, he would walk into his favorite cafés confused and with little to no money. Patrons and diners alike loved Beauford though; he was a local café celebrity known for his sweet demeanor and constant words of wisdom. Someone would always be there to help him pay for a meal and to guide him home.

Café Floor
Creative Commons License

Beauford sailed to France never intending to stay longer than a few months. He fell into the rhythm of Montparnasse, teeming with creative and intellectual energy, and lived out the remaining 26 years of his life there. The café culture for artists in Paris is notorious throughout the globe, and Beauford Delaney is a longstanding symbol of the community and camaraderie synonymous with it.

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