Beauford Delaney is one of five portraits that Georgia O’Keeffe completed of Delaney, three of which were executed in charcoal. The other examples in this medium are in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Two pastel versions are owned respectively by the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., and Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Over the course of her long career, O’Keeffe executed only a handful of fully-realized representational portraits. Her exploration of noted African-American artist Beauford Delaney represents her greatest efforts in the classical genre, as well as a defining early moment of inclusion in American art.
Recognized as one of the most prominent artists of the Harlem Renaissance, Delaney is best known for his modern figurative paintings of New York City life and its famous figures, as well as his later explorations into abstraction while living in Paris. Delaney first entered the rarified circle of the foremost American Modernists in New York during the 1930s, after fellow artist and friend Stuart Davis recommended he engage with the famed impresario Alfred Stieglitz. Spending time at Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place, he participated in critical discourse with other artists, including Arthur Dove, John Marin and O’Keeffe. Although O’Keeffe noted that Delaney often posed for fellow artists “because he had no heat in his studio and needed to keep warm,” the artist’s presence within New York’s modern art scene, even if peripheral, seems like an equally logical entrée. Moreover, the present work hints at a relationship beyond the formal studio model and artist arrangement, as O’Keeffe referred not only to Delaney as “really beautiful” but also that “he seemed a very special sort of person.” (G. O’Keeffe, quoted in H. Drohojowska-Philp, Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, p. 401).
The special dedication with which O’Keeffe embarked on this unique series—the most extensive exploration of any portrait subject she studied—alludes further to a close connection between artist and model. Drawing on her professional training and her representational roots, here O’Keeffe carefully develops the sitter’s features, delicately shading and highlighting his form to render him nearly in the round. In doing so, she uniquely captures his character, most notably in his expression which includes a clever, knowing, almost Mona Lisa-esque smile. The result is a decidedly intimate and compassionate likeness, especially for the traditionally austere painter.
Beyond an intimate rendering of an individual’s character, the present work stands as a unique representation of an insider ritual of portraiture, although typically nonrepresentational, amongst Stieglitz Circle artists. Such works were “fundamentally a way of defining their community—of proclaiming their friends and the issues and ideas of importance to them” (S. Greenough, quoted in Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 201). By extension, the fact that the pioneering female painter chose to dedicate such a notable body of work to the African-American Modernist Delaney radically places these two potential outsiders firmly among one of the most important art groups in the history of America, solidifying the position of both painter and sitter in the early Modern American canon.