Oh Freedom! Beauford Delaney

Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights Through American Art
Media - 1989.23 - SAAM-1989.23_1 - 51984

Beauford Delaney (1901–1979), Can Fire in the Park, 1946, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 1989.23

Student Questions

1. What are the people doing in this painting?

2. What shapes and symbols can you identify?

3. What do the colors and wavy lines suggest?

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About This Artwork

Like many modernist painters in the 1940s, Beauford Delaney used bright, thickly applied paints, vigorous brushstrokes, and abstracted forms to express the mood, rather than simply the details, of his scenes. In Can Fire in the Park, Delaney shows a group of people huddling around a fire. He painted the shadowy background in cool blues and greens against which the streetlamps and can fire seem to glow. The cold night air seems to creep over the figures as they struggle to keep warm, moving toward the fire's limited halo. Delaney's cutting-edge style made the plight of those huddling figures even more striking. His canvas, vibrating with energy and expressive rhythms, asserts that homelessness and poverty, especially among African Americans, was a part of contemporary life.

Delaney explored a subject that was well known but all too easily ignored in the prosperous years following World War II, particularly in New York City, where Delaney was then living. During the Great Depression, many Americans lost their jobs and their homes. Thanks to widely circulated documentary photographs, destitute people gathered around a can fire became a familiar image of the period. After World War II, as the country's economy began to improve, new images that celebrated American abundance became more prevalent.

However, for many African Americans, Depression-era realities did not easily abate due in large part to ongoing segregation and the uneven distribution of postwar bounty. For example, many public schools designated for black children were unable to replace outdated and inadequate facilities because they had less funding than many schools that admitted only white children. Similarly, many African Americans faced disenfranchisement, which barred them from voting, and employment discrimination, which barred them from higher-paying jobs. After honorably serving in a war that defended and promoted democratic values, many black GIs found discrimination at home particularly ironic. In their military service, African American men and women often received advanced job training but still could not get skilled jobs after the war.

To help solve this problem, President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 issued Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industries. Thereafter, U.S. cities drew increasing numbers of African Americans looking for positions in the skilled trades. But by the time that Delaney painted Can Fire, many defense jobs had dried up, and non-defense industries, faced with an excess of returning GIs looking for jobs, maintained racist hiring practices. Indeed, the situation faced by African American skilled workers was so severe that in 1948 President Harry Truman was compelled to issue Executive Order 9981, which prohibited discrimination in all federal government positions. This law, unfortunately, did not affect hiring practices in private industries. Consequently, for many urban African Americans, the effects of the Depression seemed to persist—even while the rest of the country seemed to prosper—creating a palpable discrepancy that would help motivate the budding Civil Rights movement.

About This Artist

Beauford Delaney (born Knoxville, TN 1901—died Paris, France 1979)

Beauford Delaney Portrait

Georgia O’Keeffe, Beauford Delaney, 1943. Pastel on paper, 19 1/4 x 12 ¾ in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, gift of the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, NPG.2002.1

Beauford Delaney was a modernist painter who forged a colorful, expressive style to capture the people he knew and places he experienced. Raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, he moved to Boston, Massachusetts, at the encouragement of Lloyd Branson, the most famous artist in Delaney’s hometown. In Boston, Delaney studied art and got to know many black activists, such as poet and political organizer James Weldon Johnson. In 1929, Delaney moved to New York City. There he associated with a wide variety of artists, musicians, and writers, including many active in the Harlem Renaissance and in his Greenwich Village neighborhood. During this period, he created some of his most admired works—vibrant, abstract paintings based on city life. He traveled to Paris in 1953 and, charmed by the city, he stayed. In Paris, he met and became friends with James Baldwin, one of the leading novelists, essayists, and civil rights activists of his generation. Delaney continued to paint and exhibited widely in Europe and the United States, but troubled by mental illness, he spent his last years in a French hospital.

Media - 1996.92 - SAAM-1996.92_1 - 55823

Beauford Delaney, Abstraction, no date. Gouache on paper, 22 1/2 x 17 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Maurice and Margery Katz, 1996.92

In 1953 Beauford Delaney moved to Paris after living and working in New York City for almost twenty-five years. The move corresponded with a dramatic change in his style. Although he would continue painting representational works throughout his career, in Paris he also began painting fully abstract works with no recognizable figures, like the one seen here. Although many factors contributed to this change, Delaney’s experience as an African American artist likely played a part. Delaney, like many black expatriates living in France, found relief from the racial tensions at home. He also felt there was less pressure on him, as a black artist, to produce images with overt political messages.

Oh Freedom "This is America" poster

"This is America" poster, 1940s, Sheldon-Claire Co. National Museum of American History, Behring Center

The wholesome family and modern house in this poster contrasts sharply with Beauford Delaney’s painting of homelessness. While black periodicals at the time portrayed African Americans and celebrated the work of black artists and filmmakers, mainstream publications featured primarily whites during the Cold War era.

Wayne Miller and Joe Schwartz photographs

Wayne Miller, "An alley between overcrowded tenements, with garbage thrown over the railings of the back porches. Most of the area’s tenants were transient" (from the series: The Way of Life of the Northern Negro), about 1946. © Wayne F. Miller, Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture

Joe Schwartz, Promises! Promises! Herkimer Street, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York, 1930s. © Joe Schwartz, Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Joe Schwartz

Although civil rights activists gained traction after World War II, discrimination worked in subtle ways, as these two images suggest. White residents in many cities left for booming postwar suburbs, while many black residents remained in urban areas. Wayne Miller’s photograph depicting a lone figure standing in a barren alley starkly documents the declining conditions witnessed in many urban areas and imparts a sense of abandonment. Joe Schwartz’s photograph offers a different view. Children play on a dingy sidewalk below a billboard that ironically reads "build for tomorrow," which suggests a suburban world beyond their reach. Yet the children carry on, building their own culture as they play.

Joe Schwartz, Back From Jim Crow Army & Navy On the Home Front—Brooklyn, NY.

Joe Schwartz, Back From Jim Crow Army & Navy On the Home Front—Brooklyn, NY. 1947. © Joe Schwartz, Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Joe Schwartz

Many African Americans believed their World War II contributions would transform perceptions of blacks. After demonstrating their commitment to liberty and democracy during the war, they expected racial segregation and violence to end upon their return. African American soldiers, like those pictured here, returned from military service calling for "double victory." Having defeated fascism abroad, they rallied for an end to Jim Crow at home.