Beauford Delaney grew up in Knoxville and went on to achieve international acclaim as one of the great modernist painters of the 20th Century.
In many ways, his achievements were more widely recognized outside of Knoxville than they were locally. But a group of local activists and advocates is helping to make sure his legacy – and that of Joseph Delaney, his younger brother and fellow artist – are acknowledged and celebrated in his hometown.
Beauford Delaney was born in a house on Vine Street in 1901, one of 10 children born to Samuel and Delia Delaney. Rev. Reneé Kesler, president of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, said he went on to attend “Knoxville Colored High School”, a successor to Austin High, and was encouraged in his artistic efforts by principal Charles Cansler.
Kesler said Delia Delaney was among the first to recognize her sons’ potential, adding that during church services, Beauford and Joseph would draw on Sunday School cards.
But Kesler also emphasized the importance of educators such as Cansler. “You can never underestimate the power of our teachers and of our educators,” she said. “We applaud them because they see things in the students that no one else can see … And I think it made the difference in the life of both Beauford and Joseph, of these educators who took a sincere interest in them.”
Beauford Delaney’s talent was later recognized by Knoxville painter Lloyd Branson, who served as a mentor and helped him attend art school in Boston. Delaney went on to live in New York and later in Paris, where he died in 1979.
David Butler, executive director of the Knoxville Museum of Art, said Delaney has a huge international reputation with a strong market for his work. “Black artists in general, their market has really risen dramatically in the last decade or so,” Butler said. “And we’re kind of rewriting our history, understanding it in a much more complete way. It’s a much more diverse story than we used to think, and a much more diverse cast of characters. Black artists like Beauford were overlooked and ignored in many cases just because of who they were.”
In 2020, KMA hosted a major exhibition of Delaney’s work called “Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door”, which focused on the artist’s relationship with Baldwin, the writer well-known for his books and essays about race in America.
Delaney’s work has also been in the spotlight nationally. In October, New York Times critic Roberta Smith reviewed an exhibition at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, in New York, and wrote in her review that Delaney’s work “is one of the signal achievements of 20th-century American art.”
And beyond the works themselves, local leaders have been working to ensure that the Delaney family’s legacy is remembered.
The Beck Center – which documents African-American history in Knoxville – in August held a groundbreaking for a new museum at 1935 Dandridge Avenue. The site is located next door to the Beck Center and includes a residence that was purchased by Samuel Emery Delaney – the older brother of Beauford and Joseph – and served as the family’s home after Beauford and Joseph had left Knoxville. The Beck Center purchased the property in 2015, and is planning to restore it.
Kesler, the Beck Center’s president, said that even after Beauford Delaney moved to Paris, he carried Knoxville in his heart.
“I think today he’s going to be a model for a lot of our students to say that we can embrace great talent,” she added. “And bringing his name here to Knoxville and showcasing him here, my hope is to inspire other young artists and creators and students that no matter what the odds, what the challenges, that your gift can be celebrated and encouraged.”