Friday, December 13, 2013

Archibald Motley, African American Artist

Archibald John Motley, Junior (October 7, 1891, New Orleans, Louisiana – January 16, 1981,[1] Chicago, Illinois) was an African-American painter. He studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago during the 1910s, graduating in 1918. He is most famous for his colorful chronicling of the African-American experience during the 1920s and 1930s, and is considered one of the major contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, or the New Negro Movement, a time in which African American art reached new heights not just in New York but across America. He specialized in portraiture and saw it “as a means of affirming racial respect and race pride.”[2]

Youth and schooling[edit]

Unlike many other Harlem Renaissance artists, Archibald Motley, Jr. never lived in Harlem. He was born in New Orleans and spent the majority of his life in Chicago. He graduated from Englewood High School in Chicago.[3] He was offered a scholarship to study architecture by one of his father's friends, which he turned down in order to study art.[4] He attended the Art Institute of Chicago [3] where he received classical training but his modernist-realist works were out of step with the school's then-conservative bent. During his time at the Art Institute, Motley was mentored by painters Earl Beuhr and John W. Norton.[3] and he did well enough to cause his father's friend to pay his tuition. While he was a student, in 1913, other students at the Institute "rioted" against the modernism on display at the Armory Show (a collection of the best new modern art).[5] Motley graduated in 1918 but kept his modern, jazz-influenced paintings secret for some years thereafter.[6]
Motley experienced success early in his career; in 1927 his piece Mending Socks was voted the most popular exhibit at the Newark Museum in New Jersey.[7] He was awarded the Harmon Foundation award in 1928, and then became the first African-American to have a one-man exhibit in New York City. He sold twenty-two out of the twenty-six exhibited paintings.[citation needed]

Foreign study and inspirations[edit]

In 1927 he had applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship and was denied, but he reapplied and won the fellowship in 1929. He studied in France for a year, and chose not to extend his fellowship another six months. While many contemporary artists looked back to Africa for inspiration, Motley was inspired by the great Renaissance masters whose work was displayed at the Louvre.[8] He found in the artwork there a formal sophistication and maturity that could give depth to his own work, particularly in the Dutch painters and the genre paintings of Delacroix, Hals, and Rembrandt. Motley’s portraits take the conventions of the Western tradition and update them—allowing for black bodies, specifically black female bodies, a space in a history that had traditionally excluded them.


During the 1930s, Motley was employed by the federal Works Progress Administration to depict scenes from African-American history in a series of murals, some of which can be found at Nichols Middle School in Evanston, Illinois. After his wife’s death in 1948 and difficult financial times, Motley was forced to seek work painting shower curtains for the Styletone Corporation. In the 1950s, he made several visits to Mexico and began painting Mexican life and landscapes.[9]

Skin tone and identity[edit]

NARA black-and-white photograph of "Getting Religion" painting by Motley (original painting in color)
Motley’s family lived in a quiet neighborhood on Chicago’s south side in an environment that was racially tolerant. Motley did not spend much of his time growing up around other blacks. It was this disconnection with the African American community around him that established Motley as an outsider. Motley himself was light skinned and of mixed racial makeup, being African, First American and European. Motley wrestled all his life with his own racial identity. He was unable to fully associate with one or the other, neither black nor white. Rather than focusing his energy on establishing his own racial identity, Motley turned his talents to uncovering the secrets of racial identity across the spectrum of skin color. As Motley struggled with his own racial identity, he used distinctions in skin color and physical features to give meaning to each individual shade of African American. Motley was fascinated with skin color and what it meant in the context of racial identity. He realized that in American society, different statuses were attributed to each gradation of skin tone.
In the 1920s and 1930s, during the New Negro Renaissance, Motley dedicated a series of portraits to types of Negroes. He focused mostly on women of mixed racial ancestry, and did numerous portraits documenting women of varying African-blood quantities ("octoroon," "quadroon," "mulatto"). These portraits celebrate skin tone as something diverse, inclusive, and pluralistic.[10] They also demonstrate an understanding that these categorizations become synonymous with public identity and influence one's opportunities in life.[11] It is often difficult if not impossible to tell what kind of racial mixture the subject has without referring to the title. These physical markers of blackness, then, are unstable and unreliable, and Motley exposed that difference.
Motley spoke to a wide audience of both whites and blacks in his portraits, aiming to educate them on the politics of skin tone, if in different ways. He hoped to prove to blacks through art that their own racial identity was something to be appreciated. For white audiences he hoped to bring an end to black stereotypes and racism by displaying the beauty and achievements of African Americans. Motley’s fascination with painting the different types of African Americans stemmed from a desire to give each African American his or her own character and personality. This is consistent with Motley’s aims of portraying an absolutely accurate and transparent representation of African Americans; his commitment to differentiating between skin types shows his meticulous efforts to specify even the slightest differences between individuals. In an interview with the Smithsonian Institution, Motley explained his motives and the difficulty behind painting the different skin tones of African Americans:
"They're not all the same color, they're not all black, they're not all, as they used to say years ago, high yellow, they're not all brown. I try to give each one of them character as individuals. And that's hard to do when you have so many figures to do, putting them all together and still have them have their characteristics" (Motley 1978)
In this excerpt from the interview, Motley describes how each individual he paints has a unique skin tone. By painting the differences in their skin tones, Motley is also attempting to bring out the differences in personality of his subjects. It could be interpreted that through this differentiating, Motley is asking white viewers not to lump all African Americans into the same category or stereotype, but to get to know each of them as individuals before making any judgments.[12]

Works and observation of jazz culture[edit]

NARA black-and-white photograph of "Black Belt," painting by Motely (original painting in color)
His night scenes and crowd scenes, heavily influenced by jazz culture, are perhaps his most popular and most prolific. He depicted a vivid, urban black culture that bore little resemblance to the conventional and marginalizing rustic images of black Southerners so popular in the cultural eye.[13] It is important to note, however, that it was not his community he was representing—he was among the affluent and elite black community of Chicago. He married a white woman and lived in a white neighborhood, and was not a part of that urban experience in the same way his subjects were.

Bronzeville at Night[edit]

In his paintings of jazz culture, Motley often depicted Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, which offered a safe haven for blacks migrating from the South.[14] One of his most famous works showing the urban black community is Bronzeville at Night, showing African Americans as actively engaged, urban peoples who identify with the city streets. In the work, Motley provides a central image of the lively street scene and portrays the scene as a distant observer, capturing the many individual interactions but paying attention to the big picture at the same time.[15]
Like many of his other works, Motley’s cross-section of Bronzeville lacks a central narrative. For example, a brooding man with his hands in his pockets gives a stern look. Behind the bus, a man throws his arms up ecstatically. In the center, a man exchanges words with a partner, his arm up and head titled as if to show that he is making a point. By displaying a balance between specificity and generalization, he allows "the viewer to identify with the figures and the places of the artist’s compositions".[15]


In Stomp, Motley painted a busy cabaret scene which again documents the vivid urban black culture. The excitement in the painting is very much palpable. One can observe a woman in a white dress throwing her hands up to the sound of the music, a couple embracing—hand in hand—in the back of the cabaret, the lively pianist watching the dancers. Interestingly, both black and white couples dance and hobnob with each other in the foreground. For example, on the right of the painting, an African American man wearing a black tuxedo dances with a woman whom Motley gives a much lighter tone. By doing this, he hoped to counteract perceptions of segregation.
Critics of Motley point out that the facial features of his subjects are in the same manner as minstrel figures. But Motley had no intention of stereotypes and hoped to use the racial imagery to increase "the appeal and accessibility of his crowds".[16] It opened up a more universal audience for his intentions to represent African American progress and urban lifestyle.

Octoroon Girl[edit]

The Octoroon Girl features a woman who is one-eighth black. In the image a graceful young woman with dark hair, dark eyes and light skin sits on a sofa while leaning against a warm red wall. She wears a black velvet dress with red satin trim, a dark brown hat and a small gold chain with a pendant. In her right hand, she holds a pair of leather gloves. The woman stares directly at the viewer with a soft, but composed gaze. Her face is serene. Motley balances the painting with a picture frame and the rest of the couch on the left side of the painting.
Motley was “among the few artists of the 1920s who consistently depicted African Americans in a positive manner”.[17] The Octoroon Girl is an example of this effort to put African American women in a good light – or, perhaps, simply to make known the realities of middle class African American life. Motley’s presentation of the woman not only fulfilled his desire to celebrate accomplished blacks but also created an aesthetic role model to which those who desired an elite status might look up to. The Octoroon Girl was meant to be a symbol of social, racial, and economic progress.
In Motley’s paintings, he made little distinction between octoroon women and white women, depicting octoroon women with material representations of status and European features. It appears that the message Motley is sending to his white audience is that even though the octoroon woman is part African American, she clearly does not fit the stereotype of being poor and uneducated. He requests that white viewers look beyond the genetic indicators of her race and see only the way she acts now—distinguished, poised and with dignity. In his attempt to deconstruct the stereotype, Motley has essentially removed all traces of the octoroon’s race. The only indicator of her African American descent is the title, which seems almost like an afterthought. If a white viewer were to see this painting without the title, he or she may not even realize that the woman was part African American. Upon viewing the title, Motley hopes then that the audience will see just how unfitting the stereotype is for this refined young woman.


During this period, Motley developed a reusable and recognizable language in his artwork, which included contrasting light and dark colors, skewed perspectives, strong patterns and the dominance of a single hue. He also created a set of characters who appeared repeatedly in his paintings with distinctive postures, gestures, expressions and habits. These figures were often depicted standing very close together, if not touching or overlapping one another. Nightlife depicts a bustling night club with people dancing in the background, sitting at tables on the right and drinking at a bar on the left. The entire image is flushed with a burgundy light that emanates from the floor and walls, creating a warm, rich atmosphere for the club-goers. The rhythm of the music can be felt in the flailing arms of the dancers, who appear to be performing the popular Lindy hop.
In contrast, the man in the bottom right corner sits and stares in a drunken stupor. Another man in the center and a woman towards the upper right corner also sit isolated and calm in the midst of the commotion of the club.
In an interview with the Smithsonian Institution, Motley explained this disapproval of racism he tries to dispel with Nightlife and other paintings:
“And that's why I say that racism is the first thing that they have got to get out of their heads, forget about this damned racism, to hell with racism ... That means nothing to an artist. We're all human beings. And the sooner that's forgotten and the sooner that you can come back to yourself and do the things that you want to do” (Motley 1978)
In this excerpt, Motley calls for the removal of racism from social norms. He goes on to say that especially for an artist, it shouldn’t matter what color of skin someone has—everyone is equal. He suggests that once racism is erased, everyone can focus on his or her self and enjoy life. In Nightlife, the club patrons appear to have forgotten racism and are making the most of life by having a pleasurable night out listening and dancing to jazz music. As a result of the club-goers removal of racism from their thoughts, Motley can portray them so pleasantly with warm colors and inviting body language.[12]


Motley married his high school sweetheart Edith Granzo in 1924, whose German immigrant parents were opposed to their interracial relationship and disowned her for her marriage.[18]
His nephew (raised as his brother), Willard Motley, was an acclaimed writer known for his 1947 novel Knock on Any Door.

Recognition and awards[edit]

  • Frank G. Logan prize for the painting "A Mulatress".
  • Joseph N. Eisenrath Award for the painting "Mending Socks".
  • Recipient Guggenheim Fellowship.
  • Harmon Foundation Award for outstanding contributions to the field of art, 1928.

Archibald Motley (1891 - 1981)

Born in 1891 in New Orleans and raised in Chicago, Motley knew as a child that he wanted to be an artist. He studied art at the Institute of Chicago and in 1928, became the second African American artist to have a solo exhibition in New York City. Motley's early artistic endeavors include Old Snuff Dipper, a realistic portrait a working class southerner that won a Harmon Foundation award. After winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1929, Motley left for Paris where he painted Parisian genre scenes, including Blues. When Motley returned to Chicago in 1930, he began painting portraits and genre scenes of the African American community in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, home to most of the city's African American population. Although he never lived in Harlem, his depiction of contemporary African American social life identified him with the Harlem Renaissance.

[Illustrations: Old Snuff Dipper (1928); Blues (1929); Black Belt]


Born in New Orleans, Motley spent the first half of the 20th century living and working in a predominately white neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest side, only a few miles from the city’s growing black community, known as “Bronzeville” in Motley’s day. Motley intensely examines this community, depicting Chicago’s African American elites, rustic, recently disembarked Southern migrants and common, overlooked characters.
Archibald Motley also includes portrait studies that reveal Motley’s part voyeuristic, part genealogical examinations of race, gender and sexuality. His paintings of primitivist and folkloric fantasies picturing stereotypical figures and reveries of slavery–considered objectionable by some viewers–will be interpreted by this exhibition within the context of other modern art inventions such as the raucous and often ribald “Hokum” blues music issuing from Bronzeville’s assorted theaters and cabarets.
Motley spent the year 1929-30 in Paris, France on a Guggenheim Fellowship. His 1929 work Blues, a colorful, rhythm-inflected painting of Jazz Age Paris, has long provided a canonical picture of African American cultural expression during this period. Several other memorable canvases vividly capture the pulse and tempo of “la vie bohème.” Similar in structure and spirit to his Chicago paintings, these Parisian canvases thematically and pictorially extended the geographical boundaries of the Harlem Renaissance, depicting a decidedly African diaspora in Montparnasse’s meandering streets and congested cabarets.
Finally, the exhibition considers selected works that the artist created in Mexico in the 1950s. These chromatically jarring works examine Mexico’s nascent and often seedy tourist industry during this decade.
Motley’s renderings of a vibrant and tumultuous African American community in the years just prior to and after the Great Depression, glimmers and phantasms of interwar France, and reflections on the so-called “El Milagro Mexicano” in post-WWII Mexico all demonstrate his privileging of color, emotional expressionism, and atmosphere over naturalism.

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