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Saturday, August 3, 2019

Beauford Delaney’s Self-portrait,1944

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.

One of the best-known Beauford Delaney paintings hangs in the American Art Gallery of the Art Institute of Chicago. A vividly stunning exploration of color and paint, Self-portrait, 1944 is one of his earliest self-portraits in circulation. Beauford was living on Greene Street at the time he created this painting, pushing his abilities with abstraction and the marks he was creating with paint and brush.

(1944) Oil on canvas
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
By permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

In this self-portrait, Beauford stares at viewers from a three-quarters turn to his right in front of a muddy orange background. His skin tone and facial features are a beautiful mix of warm and cool tones: the browns and reds in his face are broken up by thick and gestural brushstrokes of green and blue. He wears a vibrant red cap and shirt with a blue garment draped over his shoulders.

Despite his bold use of color, the focal point of this self-portrait is Beauford’s asymmetrically large left eye, with the corresponding brow raised in suspicion. This element of Self-portrait, 1944 recurs in almost every subsequent self-portrait of Beauford: asymmetry in size and placement of the eyes, with one pupils represented asymmetrically regarding size and color. Beauford never spoke with anyone on this artistic decision, yet it has been commented on in previous posts on the Les Amis blog.

(1964) Oil on canvas
Private collection
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
By permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

The eye is seen as a link between our exterior and interior selves, the “window to the soul.” Because of this, artists have used the eyes as symbols of something larger for centuries. Zeus, the King of the Gods in Greek mythology, was considered to be the “all-seeing eye,” a metaphor that connects sight and eyes to religion and God. Large, exaggerated eyes became synonymous with the portraiture in Egyptian art. The eyes in Egyptian images represented the presence of the divine.1

When making connections between Beauford’s depictions of eyes in his self-portraits with possible artistic influences, it is first important to consider where and when he could have been exposed to certain art periods during his lifetime. The asymmetry of the eyes, along with the different coloration in the pupils he depicted, is reminiscent of early Christian art - specifically that of Byzantium.

Byzantine art is often characterized by the static nature in which figures are represented. Byzantine artists departed from classical methods of realistic depictions to focus on religious iconography and symbolism, and eyes became an important feature in conveying divine presence in religious images. The icon of Christ Pantocrator at St. Catherine’s Monastery Sinai is the most well-known example of how eyes were used in religious imagery to illustrate the presence of divinity.

Christ the Savior (Pantokrator)
(6th century) Encaustic on panel
Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai
Public domain

This painting of Christ has been interpreted to represent his dual nature as God and human. Christ’s left side (the viewer’s right) is more three-dimensional in his deep-set eye and hollowed cheekbones, his hand clutching a book of Gospel - the word of God. This side is said to represent the human qualities of Christ. His right side (the viewer’s left) is more flat and static, the eye staring flatly and widely out at viewers with his hand held up in the sign of a blessing. These elements illustrate his divine qualities, his godly traits.

Beginning with the French Symbolists in the 1890s, there was a renewed interest in Byzantine art. The Symbolists’ works leaned towards more decoration and abstraction, relying on religious symbols and iconography used by earlier Byzantine artists.

The Cyclops
Odilon Redon
(circa 1898) Oil on cardboard mounted on panel
65.8cm x 52.7cm
Kröller-Müller Museum Collection, Otterlo
Public Domain

This continued into the twentieth century with the Post-Impressionists. Art critic Roger Fry wrote extensively on Cézanne in particular, comparing the abstract simplicity of his work to the mosaics at Ravenna. He coined the term “Proto-Byzantines” and used it to describe Cézanne and Gauguin, but the name did not stick.2

The first art historian to make a direct link between modernist art and Byzantium was Matthew Stewart Prichard, an American art historian who eventually befriended Henri Matisse and introduced him to Byzantine style. Prichard was deputy director at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston at the turn of the century, eventually moving to Europe in 1906.3 Isabella Stewart Gardner had a collection of Byzantine art that was on display in the museum, and she often received letters from Prichard on his discoveries overseas and his blossoming friendships with modern artists.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was one of Beauford Delaney’s favorites when he lived in Boston during the 1920s. He even exchanged words with Ms. Gardner herself at one point. Because of the close connection the Gardner Museum had formed with Byzantine art and Matthew Prichard, we can conclude that Beauford could have been exposed to this period of art as early as his Boston years, inspired by the simple and abstract forms.

The first exhibition of Byzantine art in Paris did not occur until 1931. Beauford would not move to Paris for another 22 years, but even in New York he was aware of and inspired by French modernists who were experiencing a revival of Byzantine art in their country. Matisse became especially enamored with Byzantine coins, stating in 1914 that the Byzantine expression and his have the same aim with the reductionist and stylized use of line.5 His self-portrait from 1906 is eerily similar in expression and style to Beauford’s.

Self-Portrait in a Striped T-shirt
(1906) Oil on canvas
55cm x 46cm
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
Public domain in the U.S.
Click HERE to view a full-sized image.

Whether or not Beauford was directly exposed to Byzantine art during his studies and museum visits, he found inspiration in Matisse, who was incorporating Byzantine aesthetics into his artwork when Beauford was only a child.

Beauford was a deeply religious person his entire life. His father was a Methodist preacher, and he entertained friends at parties with the gospel songs he knew by heart throughout his lifetime. Many of his portraits are imbued with religious symbolism, with those closest to him often represented with their hands held up in benediction and halos glowing over their heads. His abstractions from his Paris years were studies in the “religious light” he found upon arriving in France. It is not at all unlikely that he was aware of, and greatly touched by, the early Christian art of Byzantium.

1 Fingesten, Peter. “Sight and Insight: A Contribution Toward An Iconography of the Eye.” Criticism, vol. 1, no. 1, 1959, pp. 20-21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23091098. Accessed July 26, 2019.

2 Fry, Roger. “Letter to the Editor,” The Burlington Magazine, XII, 1908, pg. 58.

3 Bullen, J. B. “Byzantinism and Modernism 1900-14.” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 141, no. 1160, 1999, pp. 668. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/888554. Accessed July 24, 2019.

4 Byron, Robert. “The Byzantine Exhibition in Paris.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 59, no. 340, 1931, pp. 27. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/864716. Accessed July 25, 2019.

5 Betancourt, Roland, and Maria Taroutina. Byzantium/Modernism: the Byzantine as Method in Modernity, pg 25. Brill, 2015.

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