‘The most important artist Knoxville ever produced’

Beauford Delaney painted this self-portrait in 1970 while visiting James Baldwin’s villa in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a medieval town in the south of France. Delaney was thought to have been in a psychological crisis at the time.

We are in full-on Beauford Delaney season here in Knoxville. And that’s a good thing. Because, according to David Butler, executive director of the Knoxville Museum of Art, the late Delaney is “by any standard, the most important artist Knoxville ever produced.”

The museum was packed last week for the preview party for the opening of the exhibit “Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door,” a reference to something the writer Baldwin once said when visiting Delaney’s Greenwich Village studio.

Delaney was born in Knoxville in 1901, the eighth of 10 siblings. He lived at 815 E. Vine Ave., in East Knoxville with his parents, Delia Johnson Delaney and the Rev. John Samuel Delaney. “He was not just born in Knoxville,” Butler writes in the foreword to the catalogue for the exhibit. “He was, to a large degree, formed here, as a person and as an artist.”

Delaney left Knoxville in 1923, moving first to Boston to study art, then to New York and finally to Paris, where ultimately he died in an asylum at age 77. It was in New York where Delaney met the writer James Baldwin, who was 23 years his junior. Delaney and Baldwin became close friends with each inspiring the other’s work.

Although destitute and tormented by declining mental health, Delaney was a prolific artist. He returned to Knoxville numerous times over the years and kept in touch with his family and friends here. But he had been traumatized by the racism and homophobia he experienced here, and he had no desire ever to permanently return — to Knoxville or to America.

Portrait of James Baldwin painted in 1965.

When he was living in Paris, Delaney was asked whether he considered himself to be an expatriate. “Expatriate?” he replied. “It appears to me that in order to be an expatriate one has to be, in some manner, driven from one’s Fatherland, from one’s native land … One must belong before one may then not belong.”

Butler said that, until recently, the Knoxville Museum of Art did not own a single piece of work by Beauford Delaney. But, since 2014, it has accumulated more than 50 paintings and works on paper — the largest holdings of Delaney art in any collection.

Credit for amassing this collection goes to the museum’s longtime curator, Stephen Wicks, whom Butler said “for the better part of three decades has been a tireless and effective advocate for the artist in his hometown.”

The museum exhibit, which runs through May 10, is only part of the community’s salute to Beauford Delaney, whose face temporarily adorns many street posts along Gay Street and elsewhere in downtown Knoxville. There’s also an opera, a symposium and possibly a new museum created in one of the Delaney family’s homes. Wicks and Butler credit KMA board member and art collector Sylvia Peters with spearheading this bigger effort, dubbed: Gathering Light: The Delaney Project.

Click here for a list of related activities.

At the opening party for the Delaney exhibit are Ann Bailey, left, with her father, Jim Haslam, and stepmother, Natalie Haslam. All three are generous benefactors of the Knoxville Museum of Art and this exhibit.

Delaney painted this self-portrait in 1965.

Knox County Commissioner Evelyn Gill and opera singer Brandon Gibson. Gibson will portray Beauford Delaney in an upcoming production by the Marble City Opera called “Shadowlight.”

Called “Auto-portrait,” this self-portrait was produced in 1965.

Former Knoxville Mayor and Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe with Ashley Howell, executive director of the Tennessee State Museum.

This watercolor, painted in 1964, appears to be a mirror-image study for the “Auto-portrait” painting produced the following year, and pictured earlier in this blog post, according to the catalogue.

Theotis and Jonida Robinson entering the gallery during the party.

This 1971 oil on canvas called “Self-Portrait in a Paris Bath House,” is the last known self-portrait Delaney painted. He was 70 when he produced it.

Jim Samples and Mary Pom Claiborne.

This self-portrait is from 1962, the year after Delaney attempted suicide by jumping off a ship.

Marie and Bob Alcorn toasting with drinks called “French 75s.” The food and beverages all were French-themed.

This portrait of James Baldwin painted in 1971 hung prominently in Baldwin’s home.

Gay Lyons, left, and Sylvia Peters, a major force behind the entire Delaney project.

From left, Mark and Cathy Hill with Patricia and Alan Rutenberg.

This portrait is titled “Dark Rapture.” Painted in 1941, it is believed to be the first time Delaney painted his then-teenage friend.

David Collins and Kirby Bell.

Delaney painted this portrait of James Baldwin in 1953. In all, over the course of 40 years, Delaney painted or dedicated more than a dozen works to his friend, James Baldwin.

Marga and Jay McBride.

This untitled piece was painted in 1947.

Wayne and Linda Kramer.

Tom Bugg, left, and Alan Carmichael.

Rehearsal, painted in 1952, depicts a church choir.

Natalie Haslam, left, and Barbara Bernstein, also a large museum donor.

Delaney painted “Scattered Light” in 1964.

Members of the KMA’s Board of Trustees Julia Bentley, left, and Sheena McCall.

Portrait of Robert Kennedy was painted circa 1968.

Pamela and Dan Chips.

Caesar Stair IV and City Councilwoman Lauren Rider.

State Rep. Rick Staples, center, flanked by Bernie Bernstein, left, and Steve Bailey.

Melinda Meador, left, and Mardel Fehrenbach.

Myron and Jayne Ely.

KMA Executive Director David Butler making remarks.

Curator Stephen Wicks.

Large and attentive crowd.

Cream puffs were a hit!

Pear and walnut salad on the buffet.

You can’t have a French-themed dinner without salmon mousse.

My friend Dan Chips was enthusiastic about the dessert offering!

Alan with Chef Peter Glander at the end of the evening. Thanks, chef!

 

 

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