AMAZING GRACE by David Leeming


A Life of Beauford Delaney
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 A respectful, by-rote biography of the expatriate African-American painter who was James Baldwin's mentor and Henry Miller's friend. Leeming (English/Univ. of Conn.) reaches into the footnotes of his thick, official biography of Baldwin (1994) to assemble a complete, if brief, chronicle of the person Baldwin called his ``principle witness.'' The conflicted teenage Baldwin met the 40-year-old Delaney at a crucial time; Delaney became the troubled young man's model of artistic possibilities and his teacher. Both were black, came from religious families, and were struggling with their homosexuality. Delaney, however, had successfully made his break with his Knoxville, Tenn., roots to follow an artistic career, reaching a tenuous compromise with his country's prejudices. Although he had arrived in New York at the beginning of the Depression, he managed to establish himself as a painter of psychologically penetrating portraits and vibrant street scenes. Growing into a Greenwich Village guru, he was a close friend of such luminaries as Countee Cullen and Al Hirschfield, and painted haunting portraits of black notables from W.E.B. Du Bois to Louis Armstrong. In 1953 his inability to make a living from his art drove him to Paris, where he lived until his death in 1979. Despite Delaney's famed serenity, Leeming brings out some of the conflicts that he expressed only in his journals: the dilemma he felt as a ``Negro painter'' torn between his individual aesthetic and his ethnic pride, and his alienation from his well-meaning but patronizing white friends. Unfortunately, biographic reticence prevents Leeming from directly addressing Delaney's psychological problems, which spiraled into paranoia and psychosis. He was eventually committed to an insane asylum and remained unaware of the acclaim his work was finally receiving in America. Leeming, a diligent biographer, gets the facts down, but not what made Delaney, in Baldwin's description, ``a cross between Brer Rabbit and St. Francis of Asissi.'' (b&w and color illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Feb. 5th, 1998
ISBN: 0-19-509784-X
Page count: 204pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1997


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