1904 (Knoxville, Tennessee)
Self portrait - Self-portrait
Often Known For
street genre, figure, portrait, mural
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Black American Artists
|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|African-American artist Joseph Delaney was a folk-expressionist painter who loved New York City, both as a subject for painting and the spectacle and experience of ever-changing life and vitality. Of the city, he said: "The curtain goes up on the stage of life every time we walk into the street. In spite of New York's being the most congested city I have been in, and know about, by and large, it's just people on the move. I have enjoyed more than I can say seeing people and hearing them speak about things they love and enjoy."|
Delaney, the son of a Methodist minister, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1904, the ninth of ten children. It was in church that Delaney and his older brother, Beauford, began to express their art talent by drawing on Sunday School cards. He attended school there, leaving the Knoxville Colored High School at the end of the ninth grade. The next few years were spent doing odd jobs around town (caddy at the Cherokee Country Club, bell hop at the Farragut Hotel) until leaving for Chicago around 1924, where he served three years with the National Guard. He returned to Knoxville in 1929, selling insurance and helping found the city's first black Boy Scout unit.
In 1930, Delaney went to New York City, studying at the Art Students League with Thomas Hart Benton, George Bridgman and Alexander Brooke. Other students there at the time included Jackson Pollock, Henry Stair, and Bruce Mitchell.
In 1932, he exhibited in the first Washington Square Outdoor Art Show. He would continue to do so for the next forty years, working as a sketch artist there, drawing such celebrities as Eartha Kitt, Arlene Francis, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Tallulah Bankhead. Delaney would spend fifty-six years living and painting in the area of lower Manhattan, SoHo and Union Square.
From 1934-1940, Delaney worked for the WPA (Works' Progress Administration) on projects in New York City including the Index of Design for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pier 72 mural, and the Story of the Recorded Word mural at the Public Library. He also taught at Harlem and Brooklyn settlement houses and the Art Students League while exhibiting his paintings in his studio, art galleries and other exhibitions.
In 1942, Delaney received a Julius Rosenwald grant of $1200.00 to travel, sketch and later paint the Eastern seaboard. In 1964, he was a sketch artist for the New Orleans exhibit and later the Ghana exhibit at the New York City World's Fair. From 1978-1980, he worked for CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, as an artist in residence at the Henry Street Settlement.
In 1979, Delaney's brother, Beauford, died in Paris at St. Anne's Hospital, an insane asylum. Delaney paid over $6,000 to the French government for taxes, storage, and shipping, to have Beauford's art and personal effects shipped to the U.S.
The University of Tennessee would figure strongly in Delaney's life. In 1970, the artist had an exhibition there, and his painting, "V-J Day, Times Square", was added to their collection. In 1986, the Ewing Gallery exhibited, "Joseph Delaney: A Retrospective," as part of the Homecoming '86 Festival. In that year, author Alex Haley helped Delaney become an artist-in-residence at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, a position he would hold until his death on Wednesday, November 21, 1991, at The University of Tennessee Medical Center.
New York Federal Art Project, 1936-39
Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibition, New York, 1931-74
American Negro Exposition, Chicago, 1940
McMillen Gallery, New York, 1941
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1942
Riverside Museum, New York, 1942
Atlanta University, Atlanta, Ga., 1942, 1946
Roko Gallery, New York, 1944
Greenwich House, New York, 1944
Art Students League, New York, 1944
Audubon Artists Fifth Annual, New York, 1946
National Academy of Design, New York, 1946, 1948
Hotel Diplomat, New York, 1948
Pyramid Club, Philadelphia, 1948
William Anthony Madden's Theater, New York, 1951
Hotel New Yorker, New York, 1958
Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York, 1960
New York Public Library, Little Gallery, Hudson Park Branch, 1961
Invisible Americans: Black Artists of the '30's, the Studio Museum in Harlem, 1968.
Frank H. McClung Museum, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 1970
Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, 1969, 1971
The Art Museum, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1976
Los Angeles County Museum, Los Angeles, Ca., 1976
Fragments of American Life: An Exhibition of Paintings, organized in 1976 by The Art Museum, Princeton University
Louis Abrons Arts for Living Center, Henry Street Settlement, New York, 1982
Robeson Art Gallery, Rutgers University, New Jersey, 1984
Hidden Heritage, Afro-American Art, 1800-1950, organized in 1985 by Bellevue Art Museum and the Art Museum Association for a tour at ten national museums.
Visions of My People: African-American Art in Tennessee, organized in 1997 by the Tennessee State Museum
Alain Locke Society, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.
Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta, Ga.
British American Galleries, New York
Ewing Gallery, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, Independence, Mo.
Huntington Hartford Collection, New York
Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, TN
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
National Academy of Design, New York
Riverside Museum, New York
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson
Harlem State Office Building Art Collection, New York
|Biography from The Johnson Collection:|
|Though Joseph Delaney’s days began and ended in Knoxville, Tennessee, his artistic legacy was shaped by the half-century he spent living in New York City. The city—its activity, vitality, and, most significantly, its people—became his muse. A poet and essayist as well as painter, Delaney was enthralled with the urban experience, a delight that defined his expressive canvases.|
The son of a Methodist minister, Joseph—along with his four surviving siblings, including the modernist artist and bon vivant Beauford Delaney—grew up in the heart of Knoxville’s “particularly sophisticated and educated black community.” During lengthy Sunday sermons, Joseph and Beauford whiled away the hours by drawing. A poor student, Delaney dropped out of school in the ninth grade, held a series of menial jobs, and for a number of years led a wanton life, a period he later described as “over-living.” In late 1922, he hopped a train out of Knoxville and led a hobo’s existence for the next six years, working itinerant jobs in Cincinnati, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. A three-year stint in the Illinois National Guard awakened a sense of civic responsibility and upon his return to Knoxville in 1928, he became an adjunct preacher and established a Boy Scout troop for African American youth.
In 1930, Delaney moved to New York, where his brother Beauford had become a celebrity in the creative arts community of Greenwich Village. Joseph had nurtured his artistic passion even during his vagrant days and, upon his arrival in the city, immediately enrolled at the Art Students League, studying there full time through 1933. His instructors included Alexander Brook, George Bridgman, and, most significantly, Thomas Hart Benton. Benton’s aesthetic sensibilities resonated with the young artist, who developed friendships with his classmates, including Jackson Pollock, and attended the League’s Friday afternoon drawing classes until 1985. Along with his brother, Joseph Delaney participated in the first Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit in 1931 and thereafter became a regular exhibitor; he was one of the first artists to offer portrait sketches made on-site during the annual event. Later in his career, Delaney would execute portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt, Eartha Kitt, Tallulah Bankhead, and Eubie Blake, among other notables.
From 1934 to 1943, Delaney was a beneficiary of President Roosevelt’s New Deal arts initiative and held various positions with the Works Project Administration (WPA), including teaching art to inner city children, collaborating on public murals, and illustrating archival inventories. He was named to the WPA’s prestigious Easel Painting Division in 1943, the same year he embarked on a Julius Rosenwald travel grant. This award funded six months of touring up and down the eastern seaboard, from New England to South Carolina. The conclusion of these travels coincided with the end of the WPA and forced Delaney to the welfare rolls.
Over the next three decades, Delaney created what would become his signature works: urban scenes that celebrate the landmarks and liveliness of the city. His picaresque sketches were often executed in ballpoint ink on pocket-sized sketchpads for later development as finished studio pieces. With an emphasis on human connection, these canvases typically feature racially diverse figures depicted in a caricatural style—exaggerated forms that ignore anatomical scale and perspective in a cartoonish manner.
Several such works, including Central Park Skating, have been “identified as Delaney’s ‘postcard paintings.’” Described as “upbeat, promotional, and campy,” these genre scenes are “sentimental in their allusions to child-rearing and family interaction, a subject that obviously appealed to the bachelor artist.” In Central Park Skating, novice and skilled skaters circle the rink, set against a backdrop of Beaux-Arts Fifth Avenue hotels, in a scene reminiscent of Currier and Ives prints of an earlier generation. In contrast, other works by Delaney which portray the city’s bars and gambling clubs—featuring grim interiors and skeletal figures—reveal the artist’s familiarity with harsher urban realities.
In the 1970s, Delaney worked briefly as a visiting artist at the Henry Street Settlement Houses. On the heels of a major retrospective held in 1986 at the University of Tennessee, Delaney was named artist-in-residence there, an appointment facilitated by his friend, the Pulitzer-winning author Alex Haley. The honor included a campus house, and so Delaney left his beloved city to spend the remainder of his life in Knoxville.
Delaney, who described himself as a realist and “conservative conventionalist,” participated in more than thirty exhibitions during his lifetime. Three of the artist’s oil paintings were selected for inclusion in the landmark 1969 exhibit, Invisible Americans: Black Artists of the 1930s, held at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Of his own experience as an African American artist, Delaney wrote that “in the fine arts field, the mountain is not coming to Mohammed . . . Many a black Daniel Boone is clearing rugged terrain and thick swamps and jagged cliff-sides with palette and brush.”
He was also represented in important surveys of black art sponsored by Princeton University, the Brooklyn Museum, and Bellevue Art Museum, as well as the major 1982 exhibition, Parades: Paintings and Drawings of New York City Crowd Scenes; his 1943 canvas Penn Station at War Time is presently on tour with the Smithsonian-sponsored exhibition, African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond. Joseph Delaney’s works can be found in the nation’s premier museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Chicago Art Institute, and National Academy of Design among others.
The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina
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