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Beauford Delaney's portrait of Marian Anderson

Beauford Delaney, Marian Anderson, 1965, oil on canvas, 160.02 x 130.81 cm (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond). A conversation with Dr. Shawnya Harris, the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art at the Georgia Museum of Art, and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

Video transcript

(jazzy upbeat music) - [Steven] We're in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts looking at a large, magnificent painting by Beauford Delaney. This is a portrait of the contralto Marian Anderson. - [Shawyna] This is a wonderful painting because it shows the larger-than-life personality of Marian Anderson as an American singer, activist, and how Beauford Delaney held her in such high esteem. - [Steven] Marian Anderson is staged front and center, represented larger than life, and she looks out at us directly. - [Shawnya] This very frontal pose is reminiscent of Byzantine icons, which Delaney might've been drawing from to emphasize her importance. - [Steven] She's replacing the traditional representation of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by yellow in this painting, but yellow that is reminiscent of gold in Byzantine mosaics. - [Shawnya] Delaney was experimenting with the color yellow during this period in the 1960s, and it's a color that represented hope. - [Steven] It's beautiful, but it's not a flat yellow. There's a real impasto, it stands up against the surface. And there are areas where reds and blues or greens emerge from underneath. So it's a rich surface, and it's a reminder that this artist was an abstract expressionist painter. - [Shawnya] He has so many paintings like the background of this one with no figures. So for him to incorporate these important historic figures into these very bright yellow backgrounds highlights how much esteem he held Anderson in. - [Steven] And for good reason. Marian Anderson is one of the major figures of the 20th century, not only because she had an extraordinary voice. In fact, Toscanini said that she has a voice that you hear only once in a hundred years. (Marian singing) But she was also a major figure in civil rights. - [Shawnya] When Delaney paints this, it's about two years after she performed during the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and where only about 25 years earlier, she performed after being prevented from performing by segregationists who didn't believe that she had the right to perform as an African-American woman. - [Steven] And that performance was a watershed. It was watched by an estimated 75,000 people in person and by millions via the radio. So Delaney is representing a figure that was personally important to him, but also was a major figure on the national and international stage. - [Shawnya] Delaney would have been in Paris at this point. - [Steven] And artists like Delaney and his close friend James Baldwin were in Paris because it was an important center of the arts but also because it was, to some extent, an escape from the aggressive racism in the United States. - [Shawnya] So, even though Baldwin and Delaney would have been in Paris, they still would've been concerned about the state of things in their home country. And so seeing the strides of individuals like Marian Anderson was important in feeling as though there was progress being made. - [Steven] It's so interesting because the portrait shows Marian Anderson not singing. Her mouth is closed. Her lips are together. But it does seem, with her hands coming together, that she's standing in front of an audience and she's preparing. It's that moment immediately before she begins to sing. - [Shawnya] And it's almost like a type of mental preparation that she's engaged in. Being still for a moment before she begins to perform. - [Steven] I love how he's created, without line, a distinction between the rich surfaces of her jacket and the background versus the smoother handling of her skin. Look at the colors that he's using in that jacket. He's got a mix of the yellow that you see throughout the painting, but also these beautiful blues and these rich, plummy reds that seemed to anticipate the richness of her voice. - [Shawnya] You get the sense of richness and luxury to not only her image, but it also is a prelude to what we will hear when she sings. - [Steven] When we think about portraiture, I think we generally think about paintings from the 15th, the 16th, the 17th, the 18th centuries. We don't often think about portraiture in a modern idiom. And yet here is this wonderfully successful synthesis of abstraction and figuration. - [Shawnya] In using the figure of Anderson, who performed a variety of musical styles from opera to spirituals, she becomes an embodiment of this blend of cultural references and arts traditions. - [Steven] I think we would be remiss if we didn't refer to her eyes which are wide open, looking forward, meeting ours with a kind of intensity and intelligence that grabs me and makes me want to open my ears and to really listen. (upbeat jazzy music)