Acquisitions: Galerie Darthea Speyer Records

By Jason Stieber

December 14, 2016

This entry is part of an ongoing series highlighting new acquisitions. The Archives of American Art collects primary source materials—original letters, writings, preliminary sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, financial records and the like—that have significant research value for the study of art in the United States. The following essay was originally published in the fall 2016 issue (vol. 55, no. 2) of the Archives of American Art Journal. More information about the journal can be found at http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/toc/aaa/current.

Photograph of Darthea Speyer and Beauford Delaney
Darthea Speyer and Beauford Delaney in his Paris studio, 1972 / unidentified photographer. Galerie Darthea Speyer records, 1953-2010. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

When African American artist Beauford Delaney (1901–1979) arrived in Paris in 1953, his circumstances were hardly more comfortable than when he left New York City, where he had lived in unrelenting poverty. Delaney nevertheless made the best of his situation abroad by establishing himself within a large circle of expatriate artists and writers. The painter’s kindness and affability apparently inspired uncommon devotion from those closest to him. In a September 1972 letter offering “a few words” about Delaney for use in the catalogue of an upcoming exhibition of the artist’s work at Galerie Darthea Speyer, American novelist Henry Miller wrote, “[Beauford] is not just a friend, he is the friend, the one who gives his all. . . .  I have kept all his letters to me; they are jewels, every one of them, despite the poor grammar, the bad spelling and the mixed metaphors. They all breathe love, compassion and understanding. Never a word about his misfortunes.” One of Delaney’s most ardent admirers was Darthea Speyer, an art dealer and cultural attaché for the United States Information Services (USIS) in Paris. From their first meeting in 1953, Speyer worked tirelessly to advance Delaney’s career.

Acquired by the Archives as a gift from the dealer’s successor in business, Emmanuelle Gelzer, the records of Galerie Darthea Speyer comprise a significant accumulation of artist files, financial records, photographs, and printed materials related to the French gallery’s inner workings and its impressive roster of American artists. They also supply evidence of the crucial network of friends who supported Delaney and whose loyalty proved unfailing when he experienced a decline in physical and mental health late in life. While there are no letters written by the painter himself, the collection contains correspondence to Speyer from the artists Romare Bearden and Herbert Alexander Gentry, the dancer Bernard Hassell, and the writer James Jones, all of whom were important figures in Delaney’s Paris circle. The collection also contains numerous photographs from the opening of the solo exhibition of Delaney’s work that Speyer mounted in 1973, as well as documents pertaining to the organization of the show and the sale of artwork from it. Archival records attest that jazz musician and composer Ornette Coleman made an appearance on opening night, as did one of Delaney’s most generous benefactors, Madame du Closel, a French art collector who furnished him with a flat on rue Vercingétorix during the last decade of his life.

Capturing the dramatic decline in Delaney’s health in the mid-1970s, correspondence in the collection documents the care the artist’s friends took in attending to his living arrangements, mental breakdowns, hospitalizations, and occasional disappearances. It also demonstrates the unflagging efforts of Delaney’s circle to build an international audience for his art. A series of letters between Speyer and Bearden from 1974, for example, trace the birth of an idea to mount a retrospective of Delaney’s work at the Studio Museum in Harlem, an exhibition that finally came to fruition in 1978. Even after Delaney’s death in 1979, Speyer continued to campaign for her friend. Correspondence regarding the exhibition, promotion, and sale of the painter’s work dates up to the gallery’s close three decades later.

The Galerie Darthea Speyer Records are an invaluable resource for understanding Delaney’s Paris years and the gravitational pull that the French capital held for African American performers, writers, and artists following World War II. The collection shows us how the networks of support these expatriates were able to establish in France helped them realize what often was not possible at home.

Jason Stieber was the national collector for the Archives of American Art from 2009 to 2016.

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