Beauford Delaney’s Untitled
What do you see? Swirling green lines. Patches of bright yellow. Red and blue paint dashed onto the canvas. And thick, white splotches that mix with all the colors.
Looking at this painting can overwhelm you. And the longer you look, the more the bold colors and spinning lines blur and blend. They fill the whole canvas, leaving your eyes nowhere to rest.
This painting, with its swirls of line and color, marks a big change in the artists career. A few months before Beauford Delaney created it, he had moved from New York City to Paris, France. He was living in a new place, and his art took a new direction.
KEY IDEA ONE
While living in New York, Delaney filled his canvases with people and places.
Beauford Delaney attended art school in Boston and then moved to New York in November 1929. He soon began to earn money by painting portraits of wealthy, high-society people. A lover of jazz and blues music, literature and the theater, Delaney also painted many writers, actors, musicians, and other public figures he admired. He had a warm, outgoing personality, and many of the people he painted became his friends as well as his financial supporters.
Delaney lived in a part of New York City called Greenwich Village. In that vibrant and artistic area, the lively streets and diverse people inspired him. He painted street scenes, parks, jazz clubs, and even his own art studio in the Village. But his paintings were not snapshots of real life. Instead, they expressed how it felt to be in the city. The vivid colors, energetic lines, and quick brushstrokes show that being in Greenwich Village was very exciting.
Not only did Delaney paint many portraits of friends and supporters, he also made many self-portraits.
Delaney lived on Greene Street for over sixteen years. Instead of painting a realistic scene, he used fire hydrants, manhole covers, and fire escapes as symbols for the city street.
Delaney loved jazz music. This lively scene depicts a jazz club in Greenwich Village.
KEY IDEA TWO
Traveling to Paris gave Delaney a new sense of freedom.
Beauford Delaney left New York for Paris in August 1953. Traveling to Paris had been his longtime goal. Like many artists, he thought of Paris as the capital of the art world. In search of new adventure, Delaney wanted to immerse himself in art and experience the social and intellectual life of the citys cafés. He felt that in Paris he would have a greater sense of freedom. As a gay African American man, he faced a lot of discrimination in the United States. Paris was a more tolerant place, where he believed he would be treated with kindness and respect.
His new sense of freedom may be one reason Delaney tried a new way of painting. He made fewer portraits and city scenes, and filled his canvases with bright colors, unusual shapes, and bold lines. His work became more and more abstract, with no recognizable objects or figures. And he experimented with different ways of putting paint on the canvas. For Untitled, Delaney used not just a brush, but also palette knives, his fingers, and colors squeezed straight out of the paint tubes.
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When you take a closer look you can see how thick the paint is on the canvas.
The green paint was actually squeezed straight from the tube.
KEY IDEA THREE
An artist must use his resources creatively
Beauford Delaney had never been rich. He grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of a Methodist preacher and a former enslaved person. As an artist living in New York, he faced hard times. To pay for his trip to Paris, he rented out his New York art studio, and friends held a fund-raiser to help with his expenses. By the winter of 1954, however, most of Delaney’s funds were gone. But friends in the United States sent him gifts for Christmas and his birthday, so he could stay on in Paris. Despite shaky finances, he determined to make his time there a success.
The winter of 1953/54 was hard for Delaney. Cold temperatures in Paris hit a record low, and his studio was unheated. He had brought along only a thin old coat and couldn’t afford a new one. With so little money, he couldn’t even buy canvas to paint on. Luckily, sometime around January, he received a gift of a warmer coat, a gift that inspired him in a surprising way. He cut up his old coat. It became a canvas on which he created several paintings, including Untitled.
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The back of the painting reveals the raincoat. In the upper right corner you can see an outline of a pocket.
If you look closely you can see the stitching on the raincoat.
Delaney used palette knives, his fingers, colors squirted directly from paint tubes, and a brush to make Untitled. Create your own painting using some of these different techniques and tools. Compare how each technique applies the paint. What is your favorite method?
Compare and Contrast
Delaney was inspired by the artwork of Claude Monet. Take a closer look at Monet’s The Japanese Bridge. How is the painting similar to Delaney’s Untitled? Different? Write a short essay to compare and contrast the artworks.
Visual Elements Poem
Look closely at Untitled and write a phrase or sentence for each of the following formal elements: color, line, shape, texture. Then combine the four phrases to create a poem.
Curling and swirling lines
Blotches of yellow
Thick like frosting.
African Americans in Paris
Like Delaney, many African Americans moved from the United States to Paris, France. African American jazz musicians, including Josephine Baker, Arthur Briggs, Benny Carter, and Dextor Gordon, all moved to Paris beginning in the 1920s. Use the library or the Internet to learn about these musicians and listen to their music. Why did they move to Paris? Select one musician and write an essay about their life.