Beauford Delaney, born in Nashville, Tenn., died in March 29, 1979 in Paris, France.
In the 78 years between the start of his life and his death, Delaney became a notable African-American artist.
But as is the case with many artists, the creative voices in his head turned on him, leaving him demented and alone.
And like so many other artists, appreciation for his work appreciated long after he was gone.
Delaney was like many artists in a lot of respects. He had complex social mores, abused alcohol, and heard voices.
Even leaving America in 1953 to go to the city that speaks to the creative souls was the norm. A bigger draw: No segregation laws in France.
Nearly 31 years after Delaney died, there is renewed interest in his work and life. Sparked by a recent inquiry about African Americans buried in Paris, writer and tour guide Monique Wells found out that Delaney was not only buried in Paris, but also was in an unmarked grave.
How the man died without a legal will in a psychiatric hospital in Paris is well documented by writers and his friends.
“I had often read about him in books about African-American Paris, and personally know two of his close friends,” said Wells, an American living in Paris for more than 17 years. “I don’t see them often, but when I do, they speak of Beauford frequently and with great affection.”
After attending art school in Boston, Delaney moved to Harlem, and then later to Greenwich Village, New York, a mecca for bohemians and artists. He made friends with writers James Baldwin and Henry Miller, and painter Georgia O’Keefe and Ed Clark. But Delaney still found barriers to entry in America because of the color of his skin.
Paris stood like a beacon, beckoning Delaney.
“Segregation was against the law north of the Mason-Dixon line, but it was still practiced socially,” said Richard Gibson, a life-long friend of Delaney, from his home in London. “France did not participate in segregation of the races, so it was less racist than the United States.”
Gibson, now 78, was 16 years old when he first met Delaney. He had read Miller’s essay, “The Amazing and Invariable Beauford Delaney,” in 1947, and then wrote Delaney, who later showed up at the teenager’s door. In 1955, Delaney painted Gibson’s portrait.
“He had a very sunny studio in Montparnasse, and that’s where he painted me,” Gibson said. “He had all the furniture covered in white sheets to capture the light in the room. His paintings are about the use of light.”
Light has shone on Delaney’s memory. Today his art is sold in Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York, a gallery whose mission is to promote art movements in 20th-century United States. The gallery also seeks to increase the visibility of under-recognized American artists.
The gallery has featured Delaney’s art in solo exhibitions twice, and has presented his work in numerous themed exhibitions.
“With increased exposure and scholarship over the last 10 years, Delaney’s audience has expanded, and the value of his work has increased,” said gallery director Halley K. Harrisburg.
Additionally, Delaney’s portrait of James Baldwin is in The Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Wells had heard of Delaney, a 20th-century artist whose work cycled from realism to abstract. So when she was told that his body might be exhumed because of nonpayment of fees to the cemetery, she intervened.
She found his body, still interred, undisturbed, in an unkempt area of Thiais cemetery. She paid the equivalent of $373 to bring his fees current until 2011.
“I was told that Beauford's remains were left in the current gravesite because there is not an issue with space at Thiais cemetery,” Wells said. “This would never have happened if he had been interred at Pere Lachaise or Montparnasse.”
To deter the chance of Delaney’s being removed from his resting place, Wells founded Les Amis de Beauford Delaney, translated as the Friends of Beauford Delaney. The not-for-profit association is trying to raise $8,500 to pay Delaney’s grave fees through 2021 and purchase a headstone.
As the only one “close” to Delaney in Paris, Wells said she felt it was her duty to take up the cause.
“Everything that I have read and heard about him indicates that he was extremely well loved, and it seemed a pity to allow his remains to be exhumed after so long,” Wells said. “I also know—again from reading and from listening to Beauford’s friends– that he loved Paris and considered it home. He suffered much in his life, and both I and his friends think that he should be allowed to rest in peace. We also believe that he should have a proper monument to honor him.”
Wells now educates people about Delaney and his contribution to American art. She will give a presentation called Beauford Delaney: From Paris to Beyond, on Feb. 27 at New York University in Paris as part of the American Embassy in Paris’ Black History Month events.
Gibson plans to attend.
He remembers when he and Delaney would go to the American Embassy in Paris to renew their passports, and the staff would ask when he was going home.
“I am home,” Delaney replied, according to Gibson.
Those words will grace his headstone.
Photo: Beauford Delaney