If you can’t wait for New Year’s Eve and want something to celebrate Saturday night, it’s the 116th birthday of Knoxville’s best-known painter. Almost 40 years after his death in Paris, he’s becoming more a part of his home town’s culture. 

Beauford Delaney was born on East Vine Avenue on Dec. 30, 1901, son of a well-known barber and preacher. He grew up in Knoxville, attending old Austin High. Eventually he found work as a sort of porter and apprentice for the city’s first professional artist, Lloyd Branson. When Delaney was in his mid-20s, Branson and other locals recognized the young artist’s genius, encouraged his career and helped send him north to study in art schools.

Delaney became well known in New York in the 1930s for his colorful portraits of jazz-age figures. After World War II he became better known as an abstract expressionist, and moved to Paris, where he spent the rest of his life, though he occasionally returned to Knoxville to visit relatives, and even did a little more painting here. He died in Paris in 1979, at the age of 77. 

Since then, he’s been the subject of a nationally published biography, Amazing Grace, by David Leeming, and of a recent retrospective of his best abstracts at a gallery in Paris. Several of his paintings sell in the galleries of Paris and New York in the six figures. 

Meanwhile, his younger brother Joseph, a talented artist with a very different, equally exuberant but more realistic style, had been living in New York, but moved back to Knoxville in the 1980s to accept a position as an artist-in-residence at UT until his death in 1991. He’s not quite as internationally famous as Beauford, although he’s been subject of a thick biography by UT Prof. Fred Moffatt. 

In 1938, when Beauford Delaney got national attention in a Life magazine profile, a News-Sentinel article predicted that the Delaney house at 815 East Vine would one day become a shrine to two talented artists who grew up there. The house was torn down during urban renewal in the 1960s without any obvious public objection. (Their house stood near the current location of the Weigels on Summit Hill.) In the 21st century, the Knoxville Museum of Art had been promoting Delaney’s work with a recent exhibition, and there’s talk of a documentary about his extraordinary life. Watch the KMA for new developments in that regard in the new year. 

It’s a happy coincidence that Delaney’s birthday falls during Kwanzaa, the annual celebration of African-American creativity and culture.