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Letters Reveal Beauford Delaney and Palmer Hayden’s Lifelong Friendship

handwritten letter in blue ink and cursive from an artist to his brother
Palmer signs the postcard similar to Delaney’s letters, saying, “May the good Lord Bless and Keep you till we meet again.”

Twentieth-century American painters Beauford Delaney and Palmer Hayden each had a profound impact on Black American art. Their work expanded representation during the Harlem Renaissance period and beyond. Later, both artists relocated to Europe where they found a greater sense of freedom. 

Found in the Crystal Bridges Artists Letters and Manuscripts collection are eight letters (written by Beauford, Joseph, and Imogene Delaney) and 10 postcards (written by Palmer and Miriam Hayden and Ellis Wilson) that illuminate the artists’ personal lives, friendships, and spiritual journeys.

“Expect to see Beauford tomorrow or next day and have more sermons in his studio in the jungles near Paris.” –Palmer Hayden

 

handwritten letter in blue ink and cursive from an artist to his brother
Palmer signs the postcard similar to Delaney’s letters, saying, “May the good Lord Bless and Keep you till we meet again.”

Creating art was a comfort to Delaney, who painted in radiant colors such as the luminous yellows evident in his abstract works. Known to struggle with acute paranoid delusions throughout his life, Delaney was able to seclude himself from the noises he so desperately wanted to escape by immersing himself in his work. The theme of light was present both in his artistry and letters. Delaney’s words to his brother Joseph are filled with passion and humility. In his correspondence from 1965, Delaney encouraged Joseph by speaking to the meaning of his work.

“While I see friends and lead a very brief social life my greatest relaxing experience is work. The apprenticeship is long and difficult as you know, and all this about success is unimportant. The main thing is to make one’s work a way of life and then one can be occupied and find ways and means of doing something that lives its own life. All we do comes of the life we live and the experience of our heritage. Keep working hard Joe and give your whole feeling to what you do.” –Beauford Delaney, 1965 letter to his brother, Joseph Delaney

 

Many of the postcards written by Palmer were sent from Paris, France, to Joseph Delaney (Beauford’s brother, who was also an artist). In them, Palmer references time spent with Beauford as he traveled through Europe.

a postcard addressed to joseph delaney written in blue ink and cursive
a letter written in black ink and cursive
a letter written in black ink and cursive

If you have had the privilege of attending The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse, you may have noticed works from Beauford Delaney and Palmer Hayden near one another in the “Sinners and Saints” section of the exhibition.

(from left to right) Palmer Hayden, Untitled (Dreamer), ca. 1930; Purvis Young (Untitled (Jesus and Angels with Boats), ca.1993 - 1997; Beauford Delaney, The Burning Bush, 1941. As seen in The Dirty South at Crystal Bridges, 2022.

Spirituality encompasses an expansive constellation of secular and sacred thought in the African American South. This section explores a variety of belief systems found throughout the American South, coming largely from West African and European spiritual traditions. The variety of spiritual practices seen here draws upon a deep connection to the landscape, the endurance of African spiritual traditions, and the Christian belief systems superimposed upon Black southerners from the time of enslavement.

Delaney’s The Burning Bush (1941) is an oil painting whose title refers to the biblical story in which God appears to Moses as a burning bush. Hayden’s Untitled (Dreamer) (ca. 1930) depicts a sleeping figure with instruments such as a guitar, a drum, and a trumpet floating over their head in the clouds. You can view these two works in The Dirty South now through July 25 at Crystal Bridges.

It’s fitting to see that the physical closeness of these paintings mirrors the emotional closeness of these two artists in real life.

 

Written by Kariah Brust, archivist, Crystal Bridges Library.