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Work of the Week: Self-Portrait

“The impression I carried away was being saturated in color and light. Poor in everything but pigment. With pigment he was lavish as a millionaire.” These are the words author Henry Miller used to describe his dear friend, the forever poverty-stricken artist Beauford Delaney. And looking at how Delaney described himself in this self-portrait, it’s easy to see why; the colors are rich and lively, almost joyous. Yet these vibrant tones seem to clash with Delaney’s distressed uneven expression. One eye is completely white as if stricken by cataracts, while the other piercing black pupil stares out at the viewer disturbingly. Though beloved and admired by a host of artist friends including Miller, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Willem de Kooning, Delaney suffered from delusions and spent his final four years in St. Anne’s House for the Insane in Paris. He claimed his portraits—“defenses against the inner demons”—allowed him to temporarily stave off his illness.

See Delaney’s self-portrait in Gallery 262.


Beauford Delaney. Self-Portrait, 1944. Restricted gift of Alexander C. and Tillie S. Speyer Foundation; Samuel A. Marx Endowment.