Painter. Although he mostly relinquished the expressionist figurative style that made his reputation to work subsequently in an abstract expressionist mode, he remained interested in portraiture. Both his art and his life betray tensions between his intelligence and creativity on the one hand and, on the other, his social position as African American, poor, and homosexual. Perhaps partially because of relatively limited artistic instruction, he developed a personal vision that somewhat distanced his work from clearly recognizable critical categories, further adding to his alienation. Intermittently, these contradictions affected his stability and eventually—in combination with age and, possibly, congenital psychological problems, alcoholism, or disease—triggered career-ending mental illness. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, he graduated with honors from a segregated high school there. In 1923 he moved to Boston, where he studied art in museums, pursued intermittent instruction, and charmed his way into both black and white art circles. Moving on to New York in 1929, he found encouragement in the flourishing Harlem Renaissance. Soon he settled in Greenwich Village, relishing its bohemian culture. Delaney's scene of homeless figures gathered for warmth, Can Fire in the Park (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1946), set within a limited and ambiguous space, relies for vivid effect primarily on painterly facture and patterns of color set off by characteristic black outlines. He had gained some attention for such scenes of life in and around Washington Square, as well as for portraits and landscapes, before he became a celebrity upon publication of his friend Henry Miller's laudatory, romanticized 1945 tribute. While still in New York, Delaney experimented with nonrepresentational painting prefiguring the colorful linear tangles he produced after moving to Paris in 1953. He settled on the Left Bank near his close friend James Baldwin. However, he never entirely abandoned recognizable imagery, which he used to particular effect in acute but stylized portraits. After 1970 the artist's mental deterioration became increasingly obvious, and in 1976 he was permanently hospitalized in Paris, where he died.
His brother Joseph Delaney (1904–91), a painter of portraits and New York scenes, worked in a vivacious, figurative style. He studied in the early 1930s at the Art Students League with Thomas Hart Benton and Alexander Brook. Later in the decade he was employed for several years by federal art projects. He remained in New York until 1986, when he accepted a position as artist-in-residence at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, the city of his birth, where he also died.