Rachel Cohen

Beauford Delaney Eyes

Beauford Delaney Eyes

Beauford Delaney, Self-Portrait, 1944, Art Institute of Chicago. Detail photo Rachel Cohen.

Drawing together the two paintings I’ve been considering this week – Delaney’s Untitled (Village Street), 1948, and his Self-Portrait, 1944.

Beauford Delaney, Untitled (Village Street), 1948, Terra Foundation of Art. All detail photos Rachel Cohen.

Beauford Delaney, Self-Portrait, 1944, Art Institute of Chicago. All detail photos Rachel Cohen.

When I was with Untitled (Village Street), I noticed the repeating circles and ovals – lights, clouds, signs, puddles.

I thought of the story that James Baldwin tells over and over, and that writers about Baldwin and Delaney tell over and over:

I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, “Look.” I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, “Look again,” which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.

— James Baldwin, Interview in the Paris Review with Jordan Elgrably, Spring 1984

Waiting for the light to change. Little moment of suspension in movement through modern city, and also spiritual state. City iridescence within the dirtiness and pollution, using the sight you have.

When I went back around to the other side of the barrier in the storage space to look again at Self-Portrait, 1944, I saw the eyes differently.

For the talk I gave at the conference James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney: In a Speculative Light, I put two detail photographs together, an eye and a puddle:


I want to make mention of Delaney’s mental illness. He heard voices. He had episodes of feeling acutely that he was pursued, and that the voices were calling him the kinds of things people did, and do, hatefully call a person who is Black and queer and poor and vulnerable. At the end of his life, he lived in an institution. I do not want to make his mental illness explanatory of the visionary quality of his painting. I want, rather, to give you a sense of the firmness and comprehensiveness of his understanding. What paint can show. It is neither the cloud, nor the eye, alone, it is the two reflecting one another.

Delaney, Self-Portrait with a Red Hat

Delaney SelfPortrait with a Red Hat

Beauford Delaney, Self-Portrait, 1944, Art Institute of Chicago. All photos Rachel Cohen.

Today, I just want to look at this self-portrait by Beauford Delaney, carefully, and from different distances.

It was painted in 1944. Yesterday, I was writing about 1943 – the year when the Harlem insurrection broke out on the night after James Baldwin’s father’s funeral, which was also the day of Baldwin’s 19th birthday. When Beauford Delaney found the money to pay for the father’s burial, and Baldwin drove through the streets of shattered glass to the burial. And then left Harlem and moved down to the Village to live with Delaney for a while until he got on his feet.

In other words, this painting is a part of the conversation Beauford Delaney was having with himself in 1944, after those events, when Baldwin was living nearby, and they were often at Connie’s Calypso, the restaurant, and spending their time with musicians, and listening to records on Delaney’s Victrola. It was 1944; more than one and half million African-American people were serving in the US armed forces by the end of the war in 1945, and Jim Crow was still in full force on the home front.

What is self-regard?


The day I visited with this painting, in the storage basement at the Art Institute of Chicago, I was not alone. The woman who arranged my visit and sat on a broken chair in the background while I looked was Julie Warchol, Collection and Exhibitions Manager. She kindly brought out and turned on a conservation lamp, so that I could really see. This means that I got better pictures than even a museum can take, because, in Delaney, the paint is so thick that it really casts shadows, which your eye sees right away, but most photographs don’t show. It is a little bit as if you are looking at a sculpture made of paint.

I think it may be easier to intuit relationships between sculpture and music than it is between painting and music. Music has a spatialness, and you move around in it, backwards and forwards and looping in time the way you walk around a sculpture.

The sculptured paint seems to have special significance around what looks like a scar at the figure's neck. Some art historians think this was a place where Delaney changed the proportions of the figure. Others imagine this as a more direct comment on history and its violence.

Delaney often let the canvas show through here and there, and those places are generally important. Cézanne did this, too, and we know that Delaney spent a lot of time thinking about Cézanne. These spaces are material and sculptural. You can see the canvas and the weave, with its implicit gaps, and it also makes you aware of how thin or thick the paint may be.


Before I had spent significant time in the presence of Delaney paintings, I think I would not have said that he is a painter in whom one feels geometry, as one feels it in the Florentine painters, in Poussin, and in Cézanne. But if you are actually standing with these paintings and staying open to them, then you do feel geometry. I think it is an interesting thing about the racialized education I go on receiving that I had assumed, without having really seen any paintings by Delaney, having seen only reproductions, that Delaney was an abstract painter who moved by color that was – and I know this is crazy – somehow divorced from space and spatial considerations.

Why would I think that a Black painter wouldn’t work from a theoretical sense of space?

It’s in my own assumptions, but I think it’s also in the photographs of Delaney’s paintings. We know that photographs are not without bias, and that the flattening of photography reduces our understanding of painting’s intentions, but I think probably many works by people of color, even the ones that are in the museums, even the ones that have been photographed a million times, will need to be re-photographed by photographers who believe that the artists are working from a place of intense abstract awareness before art critics and art historians, working necessarily from reproductions, will be able to give the works their due.


There are several different ways that the red hat in this painting is Florentine.

This morning, I went to look at my pictures, and I remembered that in looking at the painting, I thought that red mattered a lot, the reds of the hat, and the way they bring out other reds, red was being used, very intentionally, to make a certain kind of space. I got that far in the presence of the painting.

Then, this morning, I thought that the range of reds in this Delaney know about Florentine spatialization – of a kind I was trying to write about here last week in thinking about Michelangelo’s red chalk drawing of staircases. And I searched for Florentine portraits in red hats. The most famous one in America is Youth in a Hat that used to be attributed to Botticelli and still sometimes is, though the National Gallery now gives the painting to Filippino Lippi, who studied with Botticelli after his own father, the renowned painter Filippo Lippi, had died.

Filippino Lippi, Youth in a Hat, c. 1485. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Museum website image.

I got the kind of chill that researchers get as a significant connection emerges. For this painting entered an American collection with huge fanfare in 1937 when Andrew Mellon purchased it to be part of his unprecedented gift of paintings to form the National Gallery of Art, a gift that was covered extensively in newspapers in 1937. The core of the National Gallery was built over the next few years, and was opened with a dedicatory ceremony in 1941, at which President Roosevelt said, as was widely quoted in the newspapers:

“The dedication of this Gallery to a living past, and to a greater and more richly living future, is the measure of the earnestness of our intention: that the freedom of the human spirit shall go on.”

At the moment, it's a speculation, but it would be interesting if the notes could be found to fill in Delaney's relationship to the paintings at the National Gallery. We know he went repeatedly to visit Isabella Stewart Gardner's collection, admired Gardner, and can presume that he was interested in the Gardner's rich holdings in Italian art of this period.


Look at these two photographs:

My photograph of the Delaney is an awkward photograph, but a true one, of the storage space, and includes the white frame, which I don’t know the history of, but which very much underscores the relationship to the white frame that Filippino Lippi painted right into the portrait he made. I haven't seen the Lippi in person, but, even in reproduction, Delaney's formal and painterly innnovations open a conversation between me and the painting that I cannot begin with the Lippi.

The geometry of the Lippis and of Botticelli was the geometry of the wave, the undulant line. And it is in part the uneasy relationship between their windy watery world and the perspectival geometry of their city that places them among the very queerest painters of the many queer Florentine schools.

I think I see a clue in the hat. To me, the line in Delaney’s hat, here it is upside down so the shape is as clear as possible, is related to the indented shape of the hairline of the youth in a hat:


The confidence of Delaney’s painting. This self-portrait is like Rembrandt doing his self-portrait as Titian’s Man With a Quilted Sleeve.

Some day, there will be a new, earnest dedication, to a greater and more richly living future. Perhaps a curator will imagine a show in which these two paintings will hang together, and the people who come to see them will be as open as Delaney himself was in 1944, and they will just walk up the hill to look out from the high place, these eyes that will be windows on to whatever that world will be.

Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin, Notes of Native Sons

Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin Notes of Native Sons

Beauford Delaney, Untitled (Village Street), 1948. Terra Foundation of Art. All detail photographs Rachel Cohen.

Between the thirties and the end of World War II, there was perhaps as radical a change in the psychological perspective of the Negro American toward America as there was between the Emancipation and 1930.

—Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America

When I looked at this painting, painted in 1948, Beauford Delaney’s Untitled (Village Street) at length this winter, I was very struck by the way one side of the painting is very clearly in color, and the other very clearly emphasizes black and white. The color division is so evident that you have to think about it.

I do not think it is clear what you have to think, though. You might think that is a kind of commentary on the way that black and white are invented, and that the world is actually enormous varieties of color. You might think that it is a thought about imposed divisions, or about the way political lines are drawn on city streets. Or you might not.

The group of lines which are most obviously evocative of a figure are a part of the black and white territory, but also have a lot of yellow around them, which was Delaney’s most significant color, and one he often used in conjunction with light and inner light.

I saw the painting, which belongs to the Terra Foundation, in the basement storage of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was hung down fairly low and I had to sit on the ground to see it, and to photograph it. It was also lit from the side by a conservation lamp, which allows the depth of the paint and the shadows cast by the paint itself to be discernible in the photographs.


Yesterday morning I reread James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son.” You will remember that one of the things it circles around is the death of his father in 1943. Between the day of Baldwin’s father’s funeral, and the day of driving his father to be buried, an insurrection broke out in Harlem.

“Notes of a Native Son” is partly about the different feelings in the streets that James Baldwin, in the heightened state of grief, tension, war, outburst, was able to discern, and, later, to write about. The essay “Notes of a Native Son,” was published twelve years later, first as an essay in a magazine, then in the book of the same title, both in 1955.

There has been a lot of historical analogizing lately, and I, too, have been trying to figure out what is happening in 2020 by considering the flu of 1918, the Great Depression, the events of 1968. Because I read Baraka’s Blues People a few weeks ago, and because I wanted to think about Beauford Delaney’s 1948 painting, Untitled (Village Street), I’ve turned to the 1940s with a different attention.

In the 1940s, James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney were close friends – sometimes like a father and a son, sometimes like a mentor and a student, sometimes with the closeness of lovers, though they were not lovers, at different times one was the caretaker of the other, they were always artist-friends. They formed ideas together, about many things, about city streets, reflection, about being a Black man and a queer man on a city street in the midst of a World War and a very difficult period of racial strife.


I had the idea of setting some quotations from “Notes of a Native Son” next to Beauford Delaney’s Untitled (Village Street) of 1948 that I began considering here on Monday, and which I am thinking about this week, partly as a way of remaining aware through all the parts of my life of the courage of protestors right now.

Yesterday, I was unable to complete this set of reflections with the time they required. I also wanted to honor the day of reflection that many were observing yesterday by not posting. I found on reading through “Notes of a Native Son” that I really just wanted to quote the whole thing. So there is a link to a pdf of it here and at the end of this essay. Baldwin's essay is a reflection partly about losing a parent in the midst of pandemonium, and about the 1943 insurrection in Harlem. It is a deep experience to read it now.

If you are still here, then I will say a few things about Baldwin and Delaney’s relationship and the Delaney painting. Then I have put some passages from the Baldwin essay, and especially about what the streets looked like after looting. And this let me think a bit about meanings of abstraction and jaggedness, and perhaps you will find that idea is worth something if you get to it.


Baldwin had first met Delaney in 1940, when Baldwin was fifteen. He began spending quite a bit of time with Delaney in the Village, which was a different set of streets than the ones in Harlem where Baldwin had been raised, more Bohemian, less confined and restricted in racial terms.

Toward the end of his life, in the 1985 essay “The Price of the Ticket,” Baldwin wrote about what it meant to him to first go through the door of Delaney’s studio, and to meet a Black man who was an artist, “Beauford was the first walking, living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist.” They walked the streets of the Village together, Baldwin learning from Delaney, and Delaney from Baldwin, and Delaney told Baldwin to look at the puddles, the oil in the city puddles, the way the colors refracted the city streets.

In “The Price of the Ticket,” Baldwin circled back to 1943 and its conjunction of different griefs and transformations, “When my father died, Beauford helped me to bury him and I then moved down to the Village.”

Part of what I am asking myself and my images of this painting today is, does this untitled landscape, which parenthetically states a location in the Village, Greenwich Village, also carry Baldwin’s memories of the streets of Harlem, as they were at different times, including the time of the insurrection?


Baldwin published one of his earliest essays “The Harlem Ghetto” in February of 1948, presumably before this painting was finished, perhaps even before it was begun. So that Delaney would obviously have had Baldwin’s ideas about city streets in his head as he worked.

“The Harlem Ghetto” is unlike the first published essay by any other writer in history. Still, it is profound to then read “Notes of a Native Son,” and to see the writer Baldwin had made himself into by 1955.

And, or, also, did this painted streetscape, or even the potential of this streetscape, help to conserve or transform for Baldwin something of his own understanding that he would carry with him when he went abroad to France later in 1948 to go on becoming the writer he became, who would look back and write “Notes of a Native Son”?


Notes of a Native Son opens:

On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century. A few hours after my father’s funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker’s chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. On the morning of the 3rd of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass.

The second section begins:

I had returned home around the second week in June—in great haste because it seemed that my father’s death and my mother’s confinement were both but a matter of hours….

All of Harlem, indeed, seemed to be infected by waiting. I had never before known it to be so violently still. Racial tensions through this country were exacerbated during the early years of the war, partly because the labor market brought together hundreds of thousands of ill-prepared people and partly because Negro soldiers, regardless of where they were born, received their military training in the south. What happened in defense plants and army camps had repercussions, naturally, in every Negro ghetto. The situation in Harlem had grown bad enough for clergymen, policemen, educators, politicians, and social workers to assert in one breath that there was no “crime wave” and to offer, in the very next breath, suggestions as to how to combat it. These suggestions always seemed to involve playgrounds, despite the fact that racial skirmishes were occurring in the playgrounds, too. Playground or not, crime wave or not, the Harlem police force had been augmented in March, and the unrest grew—perhaps, in fact, partly as a result of the ghetto’s instinctive hatred of policemen….

I had never before been so aware of policemen, on foot, on horseback, on corners, everywhere, always two by two. Nor had I ever been so aware of small knots of people. They were on stoops and on corners and in doorways, and what was striking about them, I think, was that they did not seem to be talking….Another thing that was striking was the unexpected diversity of these groups…. Seventh Day Adventists and Methodists and Spiritualists seemed to be hobnobbing with Holyrollers and they were, alike entangled with the most flagrant disbelievers; something heavy in their stance seemed to indicate that they had all, incredibly, seen a common vision, and on each face there seemed to be the same strange, bitter shadow.

The churchly women and the matter-of-fact, no-nonsense men had children in the Army. The sleazy girls they talked to had lovers there, the sharpies and the “race” men had friends and brothers there. It would have demanded an unquestioning patriotism, happily as uncommon in this country as it is undesirable, for these people not to have been disturbed by the bitter letters they received, by the newspaper stories they read, not to have been enraged by the posters, then to be found all over New York, which described the Japanese as “yellow-bellied Japs.” …. [E]verybody felt a directionless, hopeless bitterness, as well as that panic which can scarcely be suppressed when one knows that a human being one loves is beyond one’s reach, and in danger. This helplessness and this gnawing uneasiness does something, at length, to even the toughest mnind. Perhaps the best way to sum all this up is to say that the people I knew felt, mainly, a peculiar kind of relief when they knew that their boys were being shipped out of the south, to do battle overseas. It was, perhaps, like feeling that the most dangerous part of a dangerous journey had been passed and that now, even if death should come, it would come with honor and without the complicity of their countrymen. Such a death would be, in short, a fact with which one could hope to live….

I am thinking, reading along here, that communities of color, and all thinking newspaper-readers, have been well aware for nearly three months, that people of color and workers whose jobs are not primarily at computers, are being asked to be “soldiers” on the “front lines,” to deliver the mail, the groceries, the factory-produced meat, the health care, the child care, the economy – and that at the same time these same people knew they were going to be left to die by their government and their employers, who could not be bothered to find them decent protective equipment or to get in place the testing and public health protocols and the economic support that might save their lives. That they had, in fact, been left to die for the last forty years and the last four hundred years and that the infrastructure had been deliberately misbuilt for all that time. And that backing all this up would be the systematic abuse of Black and Brown  people by the police.

I also felt very connected, as I imagine many people do right now to “that panic which can scarcely be suppressed when one knows that a human being one loves is beyond one’s reach, and in danger.” And when that danger – both the danger people I love face through the epidemic and the danger people I love face in continuing to protest – is the direct result of an authoritarian government’s systematic negligence and misguided use of force.


I want to include Baldwin’s description of the streets on the morning they drove his father to be buried with the money that Beauford Delaney had gotten to pay for the burial. But the description comes close to the end of the essay, and is full of considerations that become obscure without the rest of the essay, in parts of which Baldwin has been reflecting on his own struggles, internal and external, with violence, and the struggles he and his father have had with hatred and with pain. So that there is not a sharp judgment that might be taken from these lines when they are quoted and especially when they are quoted by me, a Jewish woman who has been living for a few years in a well-off part of the South Side of Chicago.

Along each of these avenues, and along each major side street—116th, 125th, 135th, and so on—bars, stores, pawnshops, restaurants, even little luncheonettes had been smashed open and entered and looted—looted, it might be added, with more haste than efficiency. The shelves really looked as though a bomb had struck them. Cans of beans and soup and dog food, along with toilet paper, corn flakes, sardines, and milk tumbled every which way, and abandoned cash registers and cases of beer leaned crazily out of the splintered windows and were strewn along the avenues. Sheets, blankets, and clothing of every description formed a kind of path, as though people had dropped them while running. I truly had not realized that Harlem had so many stores until I saw them all smashed open; the first time the word wealth ever entered my mind in relation to Harlem was when I saw it scattered in the streets. But one’s first, incongruous impression of plenty was countered immediately by an impression of waste. None of this was doing anybody any good. It would have been better to have left the plate glass as it had been and the goods lying in the stores.

It would have been better, but it would also have been intolerable, for Harlem had needed something to smash.

Part of what has caught my attention in these days is the way that the city streets carried, for Baldwin, the abstract understandings of the people who lived near those streets, reflections on the meanings of their lives, on the situation of their country, and on objects themselves, what kind of value they should have, how they could or should be splintered, shattered, made jagged and broken. I want to add that I am not aestheticizing violence and destruction, or arguing for violence or destruction, I am thinking that street jaggedness has significances that cannot be understood if one pretends that it has no abstract intentions, understanding, and meaning.

Amiri Baraka writes, brilliantly, about the kind of bebop music that emerged in the 1940s, and the meanings to be understood in the jaggedness and shatteredness of the sounds of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Charlie Parker (whose portrait and music Delaney painted.)

Abstraction has been so deeply misunderstood. Like all good things, and like all things which may be good and may be bad and may be made to be profitable, it has been made the province of the wealthy, the white, the western, the first world, the male, the straight, the sane, the able, the scientist, the technology worker, the orderly, etc, etc, etc. But just look at abstraction in the hands of a person who was none of these things in any expected way:


Perhaps in the coming days I will see a way to quote the last few pages of Baldwin’s essay, but today I can’t see how to do it. It feels too much like taking a detail photograph of a place of reverence.

Beauford Delaney and Protest

Beauford Delaney and Protest

Beauford Delaney, Untitled (Village Street Scene), 1948. Terra Foundation of Art. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

In these hard days, the sounds of our neighborhood are of the unusual silence of the pandemic, the birds singing, of sirens, both ambulance sirens and police sirens, of the 7 pm neighborhood pot-banging in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protestors, the muffled greetings between neighbors, masked and at a distance, the imagined sounds of videos of police violence that I have not played, but have read about, the imagined sounds of protests that I have not attended, but feel I can hear from a few miles away, and the imagined sounds of shattering glass that I cannot hear, but know to be happening a few streets from here.

I am thinking, as I often am, about the relationship of art and protest. I want there to be art, I want there to be protest.

In February, I was a plenary speaker at a conference called Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: In a Speculative Light. It was an excellent conference, and I am still very actively involved with what I began to learn there – still reading books by the other speakers, still turning over in thought their stray comments and questions, which lodged in my mind.

I can hear helicopters overhead, as we did last night until late into the night

To write my remarks, I spent quite a bit of time with the four works by Beauford Delaney that I could see in Chicago. My remarks focused on a great self-portrait belonging to the Art Institute of Chicago:

Beauford Delaney, Self-Portrait, 1944. Art Institute of Chicago. This, and all detail photographs, Rachel Cohen.

And on an important landscape belonging to the Terra Foundation of Art, which Delaney painted of the streets in Greenwich Village, where he lived and worked:

I take this self-portrait, painted in 1944, and this streetscape, painted in 1948, to say something about what it was to be a man whom others immediately saw as Black, and, it seems, a man who saw himself as Black, and to say something about city streets, and what kind of space and consciousness they may make for derogation and self-assertion.

I also think these works talk about other things that are not necessarily related to these subjects.

This morning, I have been reading Stephen Best’s book None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life, and in particular its chapter on works by the artist El Anatsui. Stephen Best is interested in thinking like and with these works. The book is having an effect on my thinking, though I am only in the early stages of being able to say what I am learning.

Months ago, when I stood in front of the self-portrait, it seemed to me that Delaney was urging me to think with paint, and perhaps that he was even amused at the literalness.

I have been writing about works by Delaney in different entries in this notebook. The first entry in the Frederick Project, and an experience from which this whole project draws continuing energy, was about a Delaney watercolor that belongs to the Knoxville Museum of Art. Another entry looked at a set of nine drawings, self-portrait sketches; another at an abstract oil painting; another at a self-portrait and its use of ochre next to a self-portrait by Berthe Morisot.

I think there are places where art and protest overlap, some where they are mutually illuminating, other places where there may not be much relationship, or a negative one. I think it would be a kind of pretense to say that art is redemptive, or that by studying art I may make progress or help others to make progress.

I try to hold to the sense that art and protest may both make room for reflection.

This week I am and will be thinking about the city streets around our house, which is in the Kenwood neighborhood built by meat-packing millionaires around 1900, and which is also on the South Side of Chicago, I am going to try to think very locally. About these two works – the landscape and the self-portrait. And about all the little areas of paint, which I am fortunate to have hundreds of pictures of. I wonder if it will be possible to make a kind of heterogenous topography, area by area, showing one neighborhood of meanings in a painting.

Delaney and Morisot Ochre: This Week in Self-Portraits

Delaney and Morisot Ochre This Week in SelfPortraits

Beauford Delaney, Self-Portrait, 1962, detail. Collection of halley k Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Yesterday, looking at pictures of Beauford Delaney’s Untitled, 1965, I noticed a kind of ochre in the corner that I hadn’t remembered being part of the palette. It's down in the lower right corner, near the rosy orange, under the diagonal of green.

Beauford Delaney, Untitled, 1965. Art Institute of Chicago. Photo Rachel Cohen.

I have also been going through Morisot paintings this week, and her self-portrait, with its ochre, came into view.

Berthe Morisot, Self-Portrait, 1885, Musée Marmottan Monet. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Ochre was so important that she used it to show her own palette, the physical artist's palette that she the painted painter held:


Following ochre, I started to think about the two of them together. Which I anyway do fairly often because two shows – Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist, and Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door – have been two of the deep experiences of learning about a painter that I’ve had in the last three years. Here is a self-portrait Delaney did that is, among other things, a consideration of ochre.

Beauford Delaney, Self-Portrait, 1962. Collection of halley k Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Both are painters who have been difficult to see – with works widely dispersed and a very large number in private hands. Both long under-recognized, so not part of every large group show on Impressionism or Modernism. Both were courageous, independent, and, about painting, self-assured.

At what layer of presence does a person’s perception of themself reside? Is it the innermost layer, private and nearly inaccessible to anyone else? Or is it the outermost layer, where they present themself to the world? Or is it just beyond the edge of the self?

Part of what I love in both Morisot and Delaney is the way layers over- and under- layer.


Learning as I go, I look up ochre. It is a family of pigments — red-yellow-brown. It comes out of the earth, and all the members of the family have in common the presence of iron oxide. It is the ferric element that gives the yellow. Earliest artistic use uncovered so far: pieces of ochre with abstract designs carved into them at the Blombos Cave in South Africa, 75,000 years ago. Used on every continent inhabited by people, important in cave and mural work among Aboriginal people, Greco-Romans, Egyptians.

Both Morisot and Delaney would have used ochres that came from the Vaucluse part of Provence in France, where the famous red and yellow cliffs were the central source for the finest pigments for artists for two hundred years, after Jean-Étienne Vastier discovered the method of refining that clay in the 1780s. So there is also a mineral proximity.


The Self-Portrait, 1885 is the main Morisot self-portrait. Delaney painted himself many, many times. Each also painted another person at all the stages of that other person’s life. Delaney painted a man he was friends with, and mentored, and loved, James Baldwin, whom Delaney first met when Baldwin was still a teenager. Morisot painted her daughter Julie (nearly a third of her paintings are of Julie).

Morisot painted the 1885 self-portrait in between the paintings of her daughter that I showed earlier this week. Her daughter was growing beautifully, was observant, was interested in painting and loved her mother's painting; they were close.

Delaney painted this self-portrait in 1962, in a year when he moved back into Paris after several very important years living in Clamart, outside of Paris, where he had really understood his own abstract style, and where he had often sat in the evenings with Baldwin looking out a window together.

Seeing yourself in other people, seeing other people and being free of yourself for a while, taking pride in someone else, all of these may let a self-portrait swing out.

Beauford Delaney Close Looking


Beauford Delaney, Untitled, 1965. Art Institute of Chicago. Photos Rachel Cohen.

I had about a half an hour with it. The kind people who work at the Art Institute of Chicago had arranged an appointment. It was in the director’s suite, behind an administrator, who typed away at her computer while I was looking and photographing. Which is by way of saying that the impression of calm is hard-won, mostly due to the painting, and to efforts of concentration.

What a painting.

It’s 21 x 26 inches (53.3 by 66 cm). A little taller than it is wide, a painting you could put your arms around. Here I photographed it in six sections, with the edges of frame.

On seeing it, I was struck by the quality of the paint, thin and dry, which I think helps the layers to show through, many thin translucent layers.

Standing quietly, you can trace the way each gesture in paint leads under and over others. You could paint over it, add layers, but it would be difficult to change the foundations, because it is an all-over painting, in free strokes. You could not scrape off an area you wanted to paint again. So it is an oil painting like a watercolor – you just lay it down.

Which isn't to say it was quickly done. Delaney reworked his water colors a lot, returning to them sometimes years later. If he did that kind of long-term reconsideration with this painting, he would have had to continue to work with what’s already there. His abstract paintings held the record of his thoughts about them in an unusually transparent way.

Painted in 1965. He had been in Paris for twelve years, and was now very experienced in a realm of complete abstraction.


Impressions of radiance and gentleness.

I think I started thinking of this painting today partly because I am tetchy, and also sad.

And partly because the tonalities that I came to yesterday in thinking about Poussin’s Landscape with St. John on Patmos are close by. See the striking similarity in palette and quality of light to this area of the Poussin:

How much variety there may be among a handful of colors, closely held.

But really I just want to stop my busy typing and let you look.

Here, the whole painting again, just before taking leave.

Delaney Self-Portrait Sketches

Frederick Project: Hasty

Delaney selfportrait sketches

Beauford Delaney, self-portrait sketches, undated, Knoxville Museum of Art, photo Rachel Cohen

This morning I went for groceries, had a zoom faculty meeting, the man came to help cement the cracks in our back foundation through which the mice are coming; my husband did the kids’ school and meals, wiped down the groceries… It’s a sunny and beautiful day, New York is running out of ventilators, Chicago is on the edge of serious trouble, I am probably already too anxious to write clearly.

For the last few weeks, I have had an hour or two, even three, to write, and have been able to write first, before the world arrives. I started doing that many years ago, first getting up early to write before my day job, then before teaching, then relying on my husband to take the kids first, but, anyway, not today.

Yesterday and the day before I wrote about Rembrandt self-portraits, and last night I tried to prepare an entry in advance. I was going to quote from Hervé Guibert’s powerful small book Ghost Image, in which there is an entry about Rembrandt self-portraits. But I am too restless.

I thought of Rembrandt’s quick self-portrait etchings, where he tried out different expressions. And this reminded me that, in storage at the Knoxville Museum of Art, I recently saw a wonderful set of nine self-portrait sketches done by Beauford Delaney.

They are so fast.

And so various.

Done on little sheets of paper torn from a spiral notebook, you can still see the paper edges with the holes. (I was in a hurry, photographing in storage, and this one blurred, but is beautiful.)

Stephen Wicks, curator at the Knoxville Museum, and largely responsible for building their Delaney collection, the best in the world at a public museum, told me he saw the sketches in the holdings of the estate and had to have them. He organized them into rows three by three and framed that that way, but thinks other arrangements might also be strong.

This one draws back a little.

And this one I love.

I can’t draw a whole thought from this. But these quick self-reflections – economy, freedom, repetition, assurance, courage, flexibility, psychological curiosity, a relationship between introspection and geometry – these are what I want to be looking at on this hasty day.

Blue of Paul Cézanne

Frederick Project: To Resolve

Ceacutezanne detail of The Bathers Art Institute of Chicago

Paul Cézanne, The Bathers 1899/1904, Art Institute of Chicago, detail Rachel Cohen

Yesterday, I wrote about Beauford Delaney’s blue, green, and yellow – the way the blue filters down through the trees; the radiant effect of combined green and yellow. Today, I want to pursue blue.

I’ve taught Rebecca Solnit’s essay on blue from her Field Guide to Getting Lost, and I’ve taught Maggie Nelson on blue in her book Bluets. Blue runs through many fields of study – those two writers and many others have traced its threads in landscape, in vision, in philosophy, memory, sorrow, tranquility.

Today I’d like to think about blue as a color of resolve.

My mind skittered for a bit. But it settled on Cézanne. That is a way to talk about blue and resolve. Which Cézanne? The Bay at L’Estaque here at the Art Institute? That unfinished oil I’ve written about that’s at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge? Or the mountain, St. Victoire, that he painted so often. The St. Victoire my mind is most familiar with is the one at the Metropolitan, with that long slow curve of rising brown. Mont Sainte-Victoire, ca. 1902-1906.

Surely I have photos? A kind of desperation to get to them all, photograph them again with their accumulating areas of blue, the blue over blue. Panic of separation. Forty-five minutes of searching through photos, no, it seems I never took pictures of that. How many hours have I stood in front of it. The reproduction is impressive, the Met allows you to focus in on brushstrokes, but it doesn’t seem like my own impression, I feel it effacing my memory. So not that painting. And not the Bay of Marseille, Seen from L’Estaque c. 1885 at the Art Institute either.

We were to go to France this spring. I was going to see paintings and talk with curators, go to Aix, and see, for the first time, the bay at Estaque, Mont St. Victoire. Small losses; nevertheless, impediments to understanding; better to acknowledge.

Here’s what I can find today. I did photograph the painting that hangs next to the Bay on the wall at the Art Institute. Here is the museum's photo of the The Bathers 1899 / 1904.

Four photographs.

And perhaps this is not so bad. Because you could look at them all day.

The lines around the figures are of a deep blue, I think it has cobalt in it. Without those lines the figures would dissolve. And blue is also the atmosphere, the air, sky, and water of the painting.

What I want to think about is this. There are two meanings of the word resolve, both from the French resolver. One began in the 14th century. As etymonline has it:

Late 14c., "melt, dissolve, reduce to liquid;" intransitive sense from c. 1400; from Old French resolver or directly from Latin resolvere "to loosen, loose, unyoke, undo; explain; relax; set free; make void, dispel.”

Why is explain with loosen, set free, undo and dispel?

The second meaning came a century later:

From early 15c. as "separate into components," hence the use in optics (1785). Meaning "determine, decide upon" is from 1520s, hence "pass a resolution" (1580s).

Here the sense of determination, the courage and clarity to proceed. This is what I will think about today, and write about again tomorrow – how is Cézanne’s blue holding both of these senses of resolve?

Beauford Delaney in Knoxville

Frederick Project: Trees

Beauford Delaney Untitlted Watercolor Detail

Beauford Delaney, Untitled, 1969. Knoxville Museum of Art. Detail photograph Rachel Cohen.

I just saw it for a minute. It was low down on the storage rack, and I had to crouch down to get to it. My one attempt to photograph the whole of it is clearly angled from above.

Watercolor on paper. Even in this poor photograph, the sense of the colors is not far from the actual. 12 ½ inches high and 9 ½ inches wide. A little larger than an ordinary piece of paper.

The curator at the Knoxville Museum of Art, Stephen Wicks, tells me that it is similar in style and subject to a group of works belonging to the museum that were all done on Beauford Delaney’s last trip home, when he came back from Paris to Knoxville in December 1969 and January 1970. It had been sixteen years since he had been home.


The trees in Knoxville do have a particular look, there is a certain air. The city is in the Smoky Mountains, and the blues are special, and have certain relationships to the greens. Delaney had been working on the relationships of blue, green and yellow for his whole life as a painter, and, especially after he moved into completely abstract painting in Paris in the 1950s, he had done painting after painting of layered blues and greens that gave the impression of looking through a particular window of the rooms he lived in, in Clamart.

To come from the Smoky Mountains, to spend sixteen years in Paris in other blues and greens, and then to return to the blues and greens of childhood. Many thousands were gone. Life had been a very great struggle. He was happy to be with his family. But he didn’t stay long; his life and his painting held together in Paris.

Just look at it.

Just look at the blue filtering down.

At the luminous combinations of yellow and green.

At the calligraphic trees in their hushed arcade.

A little before, in Paris, in 1965, Beauford Delaney had had a show at the Galerie Lambert. There was a catalogue. One of Delaney’s dearest friends – they had been friends for nearly twenty-five years at that point – was the writer James Baldwin. Baldwin wrote the catalogue essay. Here is his description of that window at Clamart:

There was a window in Beauford’s house in Clamart before which we often sat—late at night, early in the morning, at noon. This window looked out on a garden; or, rather, it would have looked out on a garden if it had not been for the leaves and branches of a large tree which pressed directly against the window. Everything one saw from this window, then, was filtered through these leaves. And this window was a kind of universe, moaning and wailing when it rained, light of the morning, and as blue as the blues when the last light of the sun departed.

Well, that life, that light, that miracle, are what I began to see in Beauford’s paintings, and this light began to stretch back for me over all the time we had known each other, and over much more time than that, and this light held the power to illuminate, even to redeem and reconcile and heal. For Beauford’s work leads the inner and the outer eye, directly and inexorably, to a new confrontation with reality.

The photographs I took in Knoxville are their own kind of storage, holding impressions of that watercolor that I didn’t know I was taking. I did not even have a first impression of Knoxville trees against the fluent sky until later that day, getting a ride to the airport, and I did not really guess at the emotional depths of the details until now, much later, looking at the expanded images here on my computer on March 16, 2020, on a day when the city of Chicago is almost silent, when we are all to keep far apart. It is snowing a little, and a small tree in a planter near my window, and the large trees, of our backyard and our neighbors’, press, draw flattened dark lines against a dull gray sky.

Abstraction and Eyes

One of the unusual aspects of Beauford Delaney’s work as an abstract painter was that even late in his career, when he lived in Paris and had moved very fully into abstraction, he also painted very specific and characterful portraits.  These two kinds of paintings were shown together during his lifetime – at, for example, the Galerie Lambert on the Île St. Louis in 1964 – and have been shown so since his death – in particular at the Levis Gallery in Chelsea last year, an exhibition, that, regrettably, I was not in New York to see. [Here are Dr. Ahmed Bioud, 1968, and an untitled work from ca. 1958-9.]

rcohen 122
rcohen 122

From accounts I’ve read, this alternating display of persons and abstractions asks something very particular of the viewer.  I caught a suggestion of the experience from watching a video of the opening at the Levis Gallery – it might interest the reader to look at it here:


One thing that clearly holds the two approaches together is something essential about the paint itself, its handling.  Responding to the 1964 show, the French art critic Jean Guichard-Meili felt that, in the end, the two kinds of works “do not differ… Background, clothing, hands, faces, are the pretext for autonomous harmonies.”  Guichard-Meili describes the paint itself as having “movements of internal convection,” and says that the one experiences “the vibrations of underlying design.”  [This account appeared in the journal Arts and is quoted in David Leeming’s wonderfully gentle biography of Delaney, Amazing Grace, p165.]

A similar idea – that the patterning and movement of the paint is common to both the portraits and the abstractions – is to be found in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts catalog of its Delaney retrospective of 2004-2005.  Here is Delaney’s The Sage Black (James Baldwin) of 1967.  [Photo courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.]

rcohen 122

The catalog says that, “Delaney superimposed a calligraphic outline on the abstract composition of reds, greens, yellows and blues.  Filled with all the colors of a flame, this incendiary, combustible background peers through Baldwin’s form…” This language seems to me to greatly simplify what I can tell even from reproductions of the work, which is that the colors shift dramatically between the ground and the figure, that the background does not merely “peer through,” but is transformed, condensed, reconstituted in and by the person.  I find it hard to understand the eyes in this painting.

                                                       *  *  *

In Paris, Monique Y. Wells maintains a wonderful website called Les Amis du Beauford Delaney, an important resource, and she has two entries on Delaney’s portraits of his friend James Baldwin.  This was one of the most significant friendships of either man’s life.  On the site, the art historian Catherine St. John offered comments on another portrait of Baldwin, this one backed in Delaney’s signature yellow.

rcohen 122

St. John writes two things that seem to me exactly to the point.  The first is her description of how to consider Delaney’s yellow: “His tactile surfaces of brilliant colors are prime carriers of light and space and it is in his use of yellow - ochre, cadmium, lemon - that we discover the substance of light in relation to spirit.”  She goes on to suggest a way of thinking about this relationship, of light to spirit, in terms of the figure.  “The isolated, self-contained image of Baldwin is the special intersection of the world of light and the subjective consciousness that Beauford Delaney brought to his portraits. It is a supremely expressive portrait in which the eyes, the most intimate and powerful feature of the face, act like magnets.”

This is a deeper understanding of the relation between abstraction and the figure in Delaney’s work and near to something Delaney himself said in trying to explain the single project that lay behind what seemed two divergent methods.  David Leeming says that “Beauford explained to friends that both approaches were studies in light revealed—the light that gave meaning to the individuals depicted in the large volumes of color in the portraits and the light considered directly as contained in the juxtaposition of minute and closely packed bits of blue, red, and especially yellow in the abstract paintings.” [Leeming, p164.]

There is much to be said, and much has been said, on the metaphysics of inward light in Delaney (and in Baldwin) but here I want to confine myself to one observation, which is that the eyes, in some important way, do not have it.  They seem in their dark opacity, or even in their dark brilliance, to reflect on light rather than to be lit.  Like magnets, they also have darkness, and draw us by an absorbing force that pulls inward.  And this seems very precisely understood.  For the eyes would have to be the very site of inversion, the very place where the abstract meets the formed person, the lens across which the inner and outer worlds interpret one another.