Archibald J. Motley, Jr.
painter – jazz age modernist
Born: New Orleans, Louisiana
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.
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Archibald John Motley, Junior (September 2, 1891, New Orleans, Louisiana – January 16, 1981, Chicago, Illinois) was an American painter. He studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago during the 1910s. 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.
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. His was the only black family in a fairly affluent, white, European neighborhood. His social class enabled him to have the benefit of classical training at the Art Institute of Chicago. 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–an impressive feat for an emerging black artist.
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 available at the Louvre. 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 images 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.
Motley was incredibly interested in skin tone, and did numerous portraits documenting women of varying blood quantities (“octoroon,” “quadroon,” “mulatto”). These portraits celebrate skin tone as something diverse, inclusive, and pluralistic. The also demonstrate an understanding that these categorizations become synonymous with public identity and influence one’s opportunities in life. 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.
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. 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.