Left: James Baldwin / Carl Van Vechten / Gelatin silver print / 1955 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Right: James Baldwin / Beauford Delaney / Pastel on paper / 1963 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
By Eleanor Morse, Intern, Collections Information and Research, NPG
The National Portrait Gallery has five portraits of the American writer James Baldwin (1924–1987) in its collection. This post invites you to compare two: a black and white photograph by Carl Van Vechten and a pastel drawing by Beauford Delaney.
At first glance one might conclude these portraits have nothing in common except the sitter they represent. However, an art historian would ask: Why did each artist chose to depict Baldwin in this way?
Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964) enjoyed success as a critic and novelist before immersing himself in photography. As a frequenter of Harlem, he promoted the work of many talented African American writers, actors, and musicians. In this photograph, Van Vechten dramatically frames Baldwin’s face using a strong contrast of light and shadow. Baldwin’s palms touch as if in prayer and his subdued gaze is directed off to the right, away from the onlooker. Baldwin appears staged as an introspective supplicant. Even the fabric, draped around his head and shoulders, evokes religious dress.
African American artist Beauford Delaney (1901–1979) served as a “spiritual father” to Baldwin for many years. In this portrait, Delaney combines intimacy with surprising elements of abstraction. Delaney exaggerates Baldwin’s facial features: his large eyes, oval head, and slender neck and shoulders. The artist also plays with color—a vibrant array of pastels and stylized forms, like the wavy lines of Baldwin’s sweater. Significantly, Delaney uses yellow, the color of “light, healing and redemption,” to portray his protégé.
Despite their differences, these two portraits of Baldwin illustrate the expressive potential of light. While Van Vechten manipulates light for dramatic effect, Delaney uses color to symbolize light and capture Baldwin’s likeness.
Baldwin used his gift—the written word—to reflect on his experience as a gay black man in America and to advocate for human equality. His voice is characterized by his compassion and eloquence. According to him, an artist’s responsibility is “to illuminate the darkness” and “blaze roads through that vast forest” so that society does not “lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955), and The Fire Next Time (1963) are among his most famous works.
Delaney’s portrait of Baldwin is currently on view in “Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction” until January 11.
James Baldwin, “The Creative Process,” James Baldwin: Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998).
Keith F. Davis, The Passionate Observer: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten (Kansas City: Hallmark Cards, 1993).
Brandon Brame Fortune, Wendy Wick Reaves, and David C. Ward, Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction (Washington, DC: National Portrait Gallery in association with Giles, Ltd., 2014).
Richard J. Powell, Beauford Delaney: The Color Yellow (Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 2002).