Beauford Delaney was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, United States of America. Delaney's parents were prominent and respected members of Knoxville's black community. His father Samuel was both a barber and a Methodist minister. His mother Delia was also prominent in the church, and earned a living taking in laundry and cleaning the houses of prosperous local whites. Delia, born into slavery and never able to read and write herself, transferred a sense of dignity and self-esteem to her children, and preached to them about the injustices of racism and the value of education. Beauford was the eighth of ten children, only four of whom survived into adulthood.
Beauford and his younger brother, Joseph, were both attracted to art from an early age. The Delaneys attended Knoxville's Austin High School, and among Beauford's early works was a portrait of Austin High principal Charles Cansler.
When he was a teenager, he got a job as a "helper" at the Post Sign Company. However, he and his younger brother Joseph were drawing signs of their own. Then some of his work was noticed by Lloyd Branson, an elderly American Impressionist and Knoxville's best known artist. By the early 1920s, Delaney became the apprentice of Branson. With Branson's encouragement, the 23-year-old Delaney migrated north to Boston to study art.
With perseverance, he achieved the artist's education he desired, including informal studies at the Massachusetts Normal School, the South Boston School of Art and the Copley Society. He learned what he called the "essentials" of classical technique. It was also while in Boston that Delaney had his first "intimate experience" with a young man in the Public Garden. Through letters of introduction from Knoxville, he also received what he referred to as a "crash course" in black activist politics and ideas; having associated socially during his years in Boston with some of the most sophisticated and radical African-Americans of the time. By 1929, the essentials of his artistic education complete, Beauford decided to leave Boston and head for New York.
His arrival in New York City at the time of the Harlem Renaissance was exciting. Harlem was then the center of black cultural life in the United States. But it was also the time of the Great Depression, and it was this that Beauford was confronted with on his arrival. Delaney felt an immediate affinity with this "multitude of people of all races – spending every night of their lives in parks and cafes" surviving on next to nothing. Delaney would eventually obtain work as a bellhop, and later as a telephone operator, doorman, caretaker, and janitor. He also managed to find "little corners in the world of the Great Depression that would or could be receptive to his work."
In time, Delaney would establish himself as a well known part of the bohemianism of the art scene of the period. Despite the friendships and successes of this period, he remained a rather isolated individual. In Greenwich Village, where his studio was, Delaney became part of a gay bohemian circle of mainly white friends; but he was furtive and rarely comfortable with his sexuality.
When he traveled to Harlem to visit his African-American friends and colleagues, Delaney made efforts to ensure that they knew little of his other social life in Greenwich Village. He feared that many of his Harlem friends would be uncomfortable or repelled by his homosexuality.
In 1953, at the age of 52, and just as the center of the art world was shifting to New York, Delaney left New York for Paris. Europe had already attracted many other African-American artists and writers who had found a greater sense of freedom there. Europe would be Delaney's home for the remainder of his life. His years in Paris would lead to a dramatic stylistic shift from the "figurative compositions of New York life to abstract expressionist studies of color and light."
Though abstract expressionist work predominated during this period, Delaney still produced figurative compositions. His portrait of James Baldwin (1963, pastel on paper) is described by the US National Portrait Gallery as "heated and confrontational, its harsh colors roughly applied" and glowing with "the vibrant, Van Gogh-inspired yellow the artist often used after he moved to Paris." The portrait "is both a likeness based on memory and a study in light."
By 1961, heavy drinking had begun to impair Delaney's often fragile mental and physical health. Periods of lucidity were interrupted by days and sometimes weeks of madness. This pattern would continue for the remainder of his life. Continued poverty, hunger and alcohol abuse fueled his deterioration. He returned briefly to the United States in 1969 to see his family, dogged by mental illness.
He returned to his work in Paris in January 1970. In the early 1970s it became clear that he could no longer cope with daily life. In the autumn of 1973 his friend, Charley Boggs, wrote to James Baldwin, "Our blessed Beauford is rapidly losing mental control." His friends tried to care for him but, in 1975, he was hospitalized and then committed to St Anne's Hospital for the Insane. Beauford Delaney died in Paris while at St Anne's on March 26, 1979.