Update: The pastel portrait of a man by Beauford Delaney sold for $48,000 according to Case Auctions.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A piece of art by Beauford Delaney, the renowned artist from Knoxville, is going up for auction this weekend and is drawing interest from across the globe.
Lot 145 on Case Antiques auctions website shows Delaney’s Pastel Portrait of a Man, which captures Delaney’s skill of figurative work. Delaney’s artwork often featured a range of figures and abstract style. According to the Associated Press, he is one of the few African-American painters associated with Abstract Expressionism.
Case Antiques describes the piece as “pastel on wove paper bust-length portrait of a bearded man with vibrant blue eyes and piercing stare.”
“The penetrating stare and psychological intensity of this pastel suggest the influence of modernist portraiture by luminaries like Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse that the artist would have viewed in museums in Boston, New York, and Paris,” Case Antiques wrote.
It’s possible that the subject of the drawing had striking eyes, but one of the things that Delaney is known for is his use of non-local colors, meaning colors that aren’t part of the subject in real life, according to Case Catalog Manager and Editor Reilly Shwab.
“He did kind of come out of the New York scene. He was there during the Harlem Renaissance, a little bit after kind of the peak of abstract expressionism, like when you think of Jackson Pollock and people like that,” Shwab said.
Shwab added that the subject of this portrait has not been identified, but its possible that the man was a friend of Delaney, as Delaney often painted friends or intimate acquaintances.
Aside from the mottled green background, much of the approximately 25 by 19 inch portrait features neutral colors that make the subject’s eyes stand out. Additionally, the blue that is used for most of the eyes, which fluoresces under black light, is also used for linework across the piece.
In addition to a 2018 authentication mark on the back, Case also says that the winning bidder will get a document signed by the Court Appointed Administrator of Delaney’s Estate, Derek Spratley, stating that the work is from the Beauford Delaney Estate. The piece is estimated to auction off for $10,000-$12,000 on Case’s site. As of Friday at noon, the site where the auction is held shows an absentee bid of $12,000 with 4 bids on the piece, before the auction officially begins on Saturday, and it seems that this piece could go for much more with the recent increased demand for pieces by African American artists.
“Really in the last couple of years, the market for African American art has just exploded.” said Sarah Drury, Vice President of Fine and Decorative Arts at Case Auctions. “We’re based in Knoxville, but we really work with art collectors nationwide and even internationally. So what we’re seeing is that there is a strong interest right now in art by African-American artists, so a lot of people are racing to kind of fill these holes in their collections for some of these amazing works that were created by African American that maybe didn’t get the recognition they deserved during their lifetime.”
Drury explained that during the auction, some clients in the Knoxville area will attend the auction in person, but quite a few will be bidding by telephone and online. According to Drury, Case Auctions is expecting thousands of registered bidders from over 50 countries to be participating in the auction.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) says that much of Delaney’s early works were primarily portraits in pastels, but by the late 1940s his paintings consisted of street scenes and interiors in a thick, impasto technique with broad areas of pure, bright colors. Much of his early paintings were lost after they were left behind in his New York studio, SAAM said. Some of Delaney’s paintings paintings from around the 1930s and 40s were represented in the collections of artists, writers and musicians that he associated with during that time, according to SAAM. The Smithsonian also noted that in the 1950s, Delaney’s paintings became progressively more nonrepresentational.
Delaney was born in Knoxville on December 30, 1901. According to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, Delaney’s mother, Delia Johnson, was born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia, in 1865, and his father, Samuel Delaney, was a circuit riding preacher for the Methodist Episcopal churches in Knoxville and Jefferson City. After the couple married in 1885, they had 10 children, but only four survived into adulthood according to the Beck Center: Sterling, Samuel Emery, Beauford and Joseph.
The Beck Center says that Beauford is considered to be among the greatest abstract painters of the 20th century, but he wasn’t the only one in his family interested in art. According to the Beck Center Joseph Delaney became a professional artist in his mid-20s and moved to New York City. Beauford’s older brother, Samuel, however, was a founding member of the Beck Center after he was voted to be one of 15 people on the Sponsoring Committee in 1974. The Beck Center added that Joseph was the grand opening artist in 1975.
While Beauford and his siblings grew up at 815 East Vine Avenue, the last Delaney home, purchased by Samuel, gives the family a closer tie to the Beck Center. In 2015, the center purchased the property that the home sat on right next to the center.
“Beck acquired the property in 2015 and we had no idea really at that time when we acquired it what we were going to do except that it was right next to us and we needed to figure out how we were going to develop this property that was right next door.” said Rev. Reneé Kesler, President of Beck, told WATE Reporter Kristen Gallant in 2021.
That home at 1935 Dandridge Avenue is now being turned into the Delaney Museum at Beck. While the Beck Center says that the home was left in a fragile distressed condition in need of immediate stabilization when they purchased it, a video walkthrough of the home shows how the two-story home is expected to look when it is finished. When the project first started, the Beck Center was hoping to open the doors to the Delaney Museum in August of 2022.
Case and the SAAM both have biographies on Delaney. According to these Delaney apprenticed under a local artist, Lloyd Branson, who encouraged him to study art in Boston, which led to Delaney moving to Boston in in 1924. After he was there for five years, he moved to New York in 1929, where he establishing himself as a prominent artist of the Harlem Renaissance.
Delaney left New York for Paris in 1953, but not before catching the attention of well-known artists and writers such as James Baldwin, Georgia O’Keefe, Alfred Stieglitz, Case says. According to Case, Delaney’s move to Paris marked his transition from figurative compositions to abstractions with a focus on color and light.
In Paris, he was able to support himself with the sales from his paintings, subscriptions from friends, and a grant from the National Council of Arts in 1969, SAAM says. While SAAM did not include much detail on his work in Paris, it did say that by 1971, Delaney’s “heavy drinking and bohemian way of living” took a toll, and he had a breakdown. In the following years, Delaney became mentally incapacitated before he died in an asylum on March 26, 1979, “completely oblivious to his surroundings.” According to SAAM.
While Delaney’s works may be featured in collections worldwide, Drury says it’s possible that there are some works in Knoxville that people don’t realize are his.
“We believe that there are a number of works by Beauford Delaney that are still sitting in Knoxville collections, and people may not realize that the market has become so hot for work by this particular artist. People literally could have a treasure sitting in living room or their closet or their attic.” Drury said.
She also added that while a lot of Delaney’s works are signed, Case Auctions is pretty good at helping people figure out if they have a Beauford Delaney or a Joseph Delaney on their hands.
“We’re always happy to help people figure out what they have,” Drury said.
EDITORS NOTE: This story has been updated with new information.