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Archibald Motley Jr. (1891 - 1981)

Archibald Motley by Dr. Dennis Raverty © Illinois Historical Art Project

Archibald Motley Jr. was born in New Orleans in 1891 to Mary F. and Archibald J. Motley. After brief stays in St. Louis and Buffalo, the Motleys settled into the new housing being built around the train station in Englewood on the South Side of Chicago. This happened before the artist was two years old.  Archibald Motley Sr. was a Pullman Porter with the railroad at that  time, one of the best jobs a black man could hope to secure.[1] Mary Motley had been a schoolteacher in Louisiana. The Motleys were one of the few African American families in their neighborhood, which at that time was populated largely by German, Italian and Irish Americans, many of them recent immigrants. The Motleys, like most of their neighbors, were Roman Catholics.[2]

In 1968, the artist started an autobiography that chronicles the first years of his life. Scrawled in pencil on faded Manila paper, it makes the assertion that Archibald Motley Jr. was unaware of his race until he went to school.[3] This story illustrates a recurrent problem for Motley: how to cope with being a black person in a predominantly white society. Inevitably, he was marginalized by white society, as would be the case for any black man at the time. But he did not feel an unequivocal identification with the black community perhaps because he lived in predominantly white neighborhoods most of his life, sold most of his paintings to white collectors, and married a Caucasian woman. Yet he addressed black subject matter in his portraits, genre scenes and African fantasies almost exclusively--the first African American artist to do so. Understandably, issues of racial identity are among the major themes running throughout the artist's mature work.

In a widely quoted selection from the autobiography, Motley tells of how, as a boy, he would skip lunch with his classmates, bicycle down to the poolroom in the nearby African American neighborhood and sketch.

"I used to take my lunch, go over there, sit in the poolroom so I could study all those characters in there. There was nothing but colored men there. The owner was colored. I used to sit there and study them and I found they had such a peculiar and such a wonderful sense of humor and the way they said things, and the way they talked, the way they expressed themselves you'd just die laughing. I used to make sketches even when I was a kid then."[4]

Clearly, the boy was trying to come to terms with his racial identity. Fascinated by the black community, Motley, even as a boy, observes the scene as somewhat of an outsider. In 1907, the Motleys purchased a home at 350 West Sixtieth Street, where the artist lived for decades.[5] After graduating from elementary school, Motley did not proceed directly to high school, but spent three or four years doing odd jobs, and working with his father for the Michigan Central Railroad.[6] Around 1910 he entered Englewood High School. Motley studied art as well as mechanical drawing there.[7] From mechanical drawing Motley would learn linear perspective as well as isometric projections, both of which he later utilized in his urban scene pictures. He was renowned in high school because of his caricatures. He was also a talented athlete, serving on both the football and the baseball teams.[8] During High School, Motley began discreetly dating Edith Granzo, a neighbor of Italian and German ancestry.

In 1914, at the age of twenty three, Motley entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on a personal scholarship from the president of Chicago's Armour Institute (later the Illinois Institute of Technology), Frank Gonzaulas, who had earlier tried unsuccessfully to persuade the young artist to go into the field of architecture.[9] The School of the Art Institute was still recovering from the infamous Armory Show of the previous year, the celebrated traveling exhibit organized by the Association of Painters and Sculptors in New York City, which prominently featured work by the European Modernists. After its sensational New York premiere it had a stop at the Chicago Art Institute before moving on to Boston. Students at the School of the Art Institute burned Matisse in effigy as a protest against the new art during the Chicago leg of its tour.[10]

This conservatism among the students was reflected in the curriculum of the School of the Art Institute, which was quite academic at the time Motley started there and was still dominated by the spirit of classicism that prevailed in the International Colombian Exposition of more than twenty years before.[11] The work that survives from Motley's years at the Art Institute is competently academic and was well received by the faculty, who awarded him honorable mention twice in composition, a skill that would remain important to him even after his abandonment of many academic conventions. He graduated in 1918.[12]

The artist participated in his first group exhibition while still a student. “Paintings by Negro Artists” opened in December 1917 at the Arts and Letters Society of the Y.M.C.A.[13] A few months later, Motley published his first writing on art, an article for the Chicago Defender, in which he blasts Chicago modernist Stanislaus Sukalski’s address at the Y.M.C.A., given to encourage black artists (Sukalski was not black).[14]

Stating that the address was “all but encouraging,” Motley had problems with Sukalski’s modernist predilection for theory, which placed too much emphasis, in Motley’s opinion, on ideas. The article emphasized instead the importance of formal visual concerns over theoretical ideas--especially composition or arrangements of the elements in visual art or design (his later work utilized compositional devices taken from Cubism and other Modernist tendencies, yet always mitigated by his academic training).

Motley also took exception to Sukalski’s suggestion that black artists should treat black subjects matter: Don’t be influenced by such men as Mr.Stanislauski, who are simply trying to limit the vast field of our race. If all Negro artists painted simply Negro types, how long would our Negro art exist? Is this world composed only of Negro, or are we living in a large universe of numerous nations and customs?[15]

This early resistance to black subject matter is surprising, given Motley’s mature oeuvre. The relative artistic conservatism of his training would ground Motley later in his more stylized figure compositions. He continued to do academic portraits from time to time for the remainder of his career.

During the spring semester of 1919, George Bellows, the urban realist from New York City was a visiting artist at the school. Motley returned to the Art Institute to sit in on his classes.[16] The young artist was deeply impressed by Bellows' New York genre scenes, as well as by his forceful persona. More than any stylistic influence, it was a sense of the artist’s responsibility to depict his own time that must have impressed Motley. From that point on, Motley's work became less invested with classical idealized beauty and more concerned with urban realism. The reality of the political situation was made brutally apparent during the summer of 1919, which witnessed widespread race riots in Chicago.[17] The Motleys stayed inside during most of the six weeks of violence that rocked the South Side. Sympathetic neighbors brought groceries to them and ran errands for them during that time.[18] The heightened tensions in the city that summer must have made the artist's continuing interracial affair with Edith Granzo even more controversial. For several years after graduation, Motley concentrated on portraiture, but could not make a sufficient living on commissions and so took a number of odd jobs to support himself while he continued to paint. He did a number of uncommissioned portraits during that time which explored racial mixtures in a series of women. He named these very generically, using the then common terminology for these biracial types: The Mulatress, Head of a Quadroon, Octaroon Girl.[19]

It was also during this time that Motley painted the self-portrait now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. At age twenty nine, the artist presents himself as a well-groomed professional in a white shirt with collar, a dark suit and a diamond-studded, horseshoe-shaped tie pin turned, curiously, downward as if to suggest lucklessness. His hands have a most rarified air, as if they never really got dirty in the process of painting. The work makes an interesting comparison with contemporaneous work in Germany by artists like Otto Dix and Christian Schad in the style of the so-called Neu Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity, a hard, almost brutal and socially conscious realism. However, there is no evidence that Motley was aware of the work of the contemporary Germans at this time.


In 1924, Motley produced one of his most popular portraits, Mending Socks, a picture of his grandmother. She sits quietly in a chair going about her task. Behind her hangs a crucifix. On a nearby table a skillfully painted still life is arranged. Behind the table, in an oval frame, hangs a picture of the old woman's former mistress during the era of slavery. The painting was in an exhibit at the Newark Museum and was voted the most popular painting in the show by museumgoers.[20]

During the 1920’s, Motley also exhibited in the art gallery of the Illinois State Museum, the J.B. Speed Memorial Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, the Harmon Foundation and the New Gallery in New York City, and the National Gallery in Washington D.C. By the end of the decade, Motley had established a national exhibition record.[21] It was also during this decade that Motley began to do the urban genre scenes for which he is still best known. Among these, Black and Tan Cabaret of 1926 is now lost, and Syncopation, from 1924 is known only from black and white reproductions in magazines and newspapers.[22] It portrays an outdoor dance at night in a black neighborhood, glaringly illuminated by the streetlamps. Although the composition was not as masterful as in his later paintings, all the basic elements of his mature work are here: vivid contrasts of light and dark (probably warm and cool colors as well); a variety of different figures or types; nightlife in Bronzeville as subject matter. The piece was awarded the Joseph N. Eisendrath Prize in 1925 by the Art Institute of Chicago.[23] It was also reviewed favorably in Revue du Vrai de Beau, a Parisian art journal which compared it to the work of Toulouse-Lautrec without the excessive, brutal realism of the earlier artist. The same year, the Institute also awarded Motley the Frank G. Logan Prize for The Mulatress, mentioned above.[24] During these years, the artist also participated in a number of group exhibits in Chicago at the Art Institute, as well as in shows produced by the more radical No-Jury Society, of which he was the only black member.[25] W.E.B. Dubois, the celebrated writer and black intellectual listed Motley’s achievements several times in Crisis.[26]

In 1924, Archibald Motley married Edith Granzo and she moved into the Motley house. Her own family disowned her and moved away from the neighborhood. In 1928, Motley was offered a solo exhibit at the New Gallery in New York City. The exhibit contained twenty-six works by Motley including portraits, genre scenes of urban black life, and something new for Motley, fanciful (and inaccurate) depictions of what he imagined African tribal life to be like. Even the titles of these pieces, many of which are now lost, reveal a somewhat sinister aspect: Omen, Devil-devils, and Spell of the Voodoo. This subject matter was suggested to Motley in a letter from the New Gallery President George S. Hellman, written to the artist just before the dealer went on a European cruise, "paint some pictures showing various phases of Negro life in its more dramatic aspect - scenes, perhaps, in which the voo-doo element as well as the cabaret element - but especially the latter - enter."[27] The African pictures were also emphasized in the gallery's promotion of the exhibit. In the checklist/catalogue that accompanied the show, it stated: “...presumably the public will find most fascinating those painting which depict Voodooism--the superstitions, the dreams, the charms of East Africa.”[28]

The exhibition reviews reflected this marketing pitch, and all the African-themed painting sold. Today the African paintings are the least popular of his works. Their popularity then probably says as much about the vogue for all things "primitive" as it does about Motley's own personal predilection for the subject. The New York Times ran a long and very favorable article by their regular critic Edward Alden Jewell in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, which interpreted the exhibit in terms of "racial" memory.[29] It is illustrated by no less than three pictures from the exhibit: Waganda Charm-Makers, Sychopation, and A Mulatress; representing Motley's three major subjects, African-themed painting, his urban scenes of black life, and his mixed racial portraits, respectively.

Jewell calls on the then-current ideas of the collective unconscious to postulate a "racial" memory that Motley calls on to paint the pictures of "voodoo" rites:

"In his paintings of the Voodoo mysteries, the interpretations of modern Negroes at play, in the weird allegorical canvases and the portraits, Motley directly or by subtle indirection lays bare a generous cross-section of what psychologists call the subconscious--his own and that of his race. The ancient traits and impulses and superstitions of his ancestors in Africa, Haiti or wherever they found their habitation, trace here a milestone on the unending march; but the hantasmagoria is fascinatingly spiced with modern mold into which much of the old race-life has been poured. The same fundamental rhythms are found whether the setting be a jungle presided over by witchcraft or a cabaret rocking to the sychopation of jazz."[30]

Motley’s African fantasies are endowed with authenticity, according to the author, not on the basis of his knowledge of African folkways, (which was slim) but on the basis of the artist's ancestry, his bloodline, the African essence that the critic claims, "flows in his [Motley's] veins." Jewell posits a continuity between the Africans and the African Americans on the basis of a shared "race consciousness."[31] These beliefs about "racial character" and attitudes which accompany them (curious or even shocking to us in the present), were actually very widely held even among intellectuals during the 1920's. They reflected ideas from contemporaneous (but now outmoded) anthropology. That field underwent a major paradigm shift in the 1930's with the emergence of cultural anthropology in the work of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, and their mentor, Franz Boas.[32] The "old" anthropology was dominated by racial theories of human diversification and behavior. Certain physical characteristics were associated with certain racial strains and from that observation, by extension, it was thought that personality traits were also racially based. Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History contained sculpted heads of various racial "types" on permanent display in its collection. Certain of Hitler's racial theories were based on these kinds of assumptions drawn from contemporaneous anthropological thought.

The "new" anthropology put forth by Boas and his followers was based on culture rather than race--that is, human behavior is not conceived of as the result of racial or ethnic traits but is considered to be based entirely on culturally inscribed codes of behavior sanctioned or forbidden by the society in question. This paradigm broadly outlined still governs anthropological thought today. It owes its rapid rise to prominence in the 1930's at least partly to the Fascist misuse of the "old anthropology."

However, in 1928, when Motley had his solo show at the New Gallery in New York City, the old racial paradigm still had a great affect on contemporary thought, as evidenced by Jewell's article and the assumptions it makes about "racial types," "racial memory," and behavioral continuity across generations and cultures based on "blood." Given the widespread currency of these ideas, the racial "types” painted by Motley in his uncomissioned portraits are right in line with the racial thought of the period, and are described by the artist himself as “scientific,” as stated earlier. Perhaps they chronicle a search for Motley's own identity as a light-skinned African American.

Whatever we make of Motley's motives for choosing his biracial models or the African subject matter, one thing is certain: Motley's depictions of African tribal life were grossly inaccurate and were probably derived as much from Hollywood movies, the National Geographic Magazine or popular anthropological exhibits at the Field Museum as from any other source. For example in Kikuyu God of Fire, a bat-faced demon looms up in the primeval jungle night, causing the "natives" to scurry for cover in the dense underbrush. It could almost be a single cell from the later Walt Disney movie Fantasia. The Gikuyu, sometimes-spelled "Kikuyu" do not favor images in their art. The lightning spirit Ngai is not represented in traditional Gikuyu art at all. The scene was entirely imaginary.

A mention of the exhibit also appears in an article in The New Yorker Magazine. The reviewer praised the portraits and some of the genre scenes but panned the African-themed paintings: For the subjective things, the boys' imaginings of Voodooland, we do not care at all. Such things, to be real primitives, could hardly be executed by the young man who painted the sophisticated Octoroon and the Black and Tan Cabaret.[33]

Even given the contemporaneous ideas in anthropology and psychology about racial memory, this reviewer seems to find the paintings unconvincing and frivolous. It might be tempting to assume that these pictures were just done for a white market in a sort of crass commercial venture launched by a gallery owner who knew what would sell to his clients. But Motley himself had a deep interest in Africa. That Motley desired to go to Africa himself is strongly evidenced by two grants he wrote in 1927 and 1928 to the Guggenheim Foundation, in which he asked for money to go first to Paris and then to Africa. The African part of the trip sounds rather vague in the 1927 document:

If possible I would also like to visit southern Africa, or rather that country of Africa, lying south of the equator [?], for intense study of the natives [sic]: their habitations, customs, and their life in general. I shall make paintings and drawings of them and their country.[34]


This vagueness was undoubtedly at least part of the reason for the failure of Motley's grant proposal that year.

The following year, buoyed by his successful exhibition, he was able to secure a Guggenheim fellowship, but not for the African portion of the study--the grant sent him only to Paris. In the second Guggenheim application, Motley comments on the purposes behind his art. The history of the Negro has indeed been dramatic and perplexing. Many approaches to the heart of the race problem have been tried: political, industrial, educational, economic, sociological and ethical. Considerable progress has been made along several of these approaches, but I think the art approach is the most practical, the most durable, and will cause less friction.[35] Motley goes on to state his ambition to do a series on the "History of the Negro Race," from "his uncivilized and unprogressive stage, though the years, to his present state of civilization in the more progressive countries."[36] The emphasis here would seem to be the distance educated blacks in America and Europe have come from their supposedly more “primitive” African ancestors.

In 1928, Motley received one of the highest honors for a black artist, the William E. Harmon Award for Distinguished Acheivement Among Negroes. The first of these awards had only been made two years earlier, but included such notables as writer Countee Cullen, bibliophile and educator Arthur Shomberg and C.C. Spaulding, a businessman. Earlier recipients in the fine arts category had been Palmer Hayden and Hale Woodruff. The latter used his award to sail for Paris, as would Motley a few years later.[37]

The Harmon Foundation was a philanthropic organization dedicated to "becoming a force to benefit the American public through social change..." and this was primarily concieved of as being achieved through social and cultural programs, such as their initiative to build playgrounds and other recreational facilities in urban areas.[38] The awards to Black artists continued only until 1932, when the money formerly set aside for outstanding "Negro" artists was used to sponsor traveling exhibitions of contemporary art by African Americans. It was perhaps thought that this more broad-based type of support better fulfilled the mission of the foundation than granting individual awards to artists.

The year 1928 marked a high point on the young artist's career: a near sell-out exhibit in New York City amidst a flurry of attention and publicity, the Harmon Award, and his receipt of a Guggenheim grant to study in Paris for a year.

Motley's New York exhibit was a success by almost any standards, except one that was most important for Motley. He felt that the show was not well received by blacks. The artist spent a lot of time in the gallery during the run of the exhibition and was dismayed by what he perceived as the lack of interest on the part of blacks for his work. As he stated years later in an interview: "A few colored people came in. I didn't know them, they didn't know me; I didn't say anything to them and they didn't say anything to me. I used to go to the gallery almost every day for a few hours anyway."[39]

He attributed some of this to professional jealousy of New York artists irritated that a Chicago artist has the distinction of being the first black painter to have a solo show in New York City since the 1908 exhibit of Tanner's work (also not a New Yorker).[40] Of the Harlem Renaissance, Motley states, "There was no Renaissance."[41]

This distancing of himself from the Harlem Renaissance was at least partly his own doing. Bessie Bearden, mother of the artist Romare Bearden, was the New York correspondent for the Chicago Defender, Chicago's African American weekly. She wrote a glowing review of Motley's exhibit, and organized an elaborate black-tie champagne party for him in New York in celebration of the success of his show, to which were invited all the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. Motley, however, did not attend.[42]

He held himself aloof from local African American artists in Chicago as well. For example, he refused to exhibit with the "Negro in Art Week" exhibition sponsored by the Chicago Women's Club in 1927 and was reluctant to join the Chicago Art League of the Wabash Avenue Y.M.C.A., stating that the artistic quality of the largely black league was too low.[43]

During the summer of 1928 Motley stayed with relatives in Arkansas. He made a number of landscapes at least three genre scenes and two portraits while he was there including one of his finest portraits, The Snuff Dipper, depicting an elderly, intelligent, rural woman chewing on a reed. The portrait has great dignity and a psychological depth rare for this somewhat aloof artist. He also produced three genre paintings we know of while he was in Arkansas. Typically, these depicted black life, this time in the rural South rather than the urban North. Field Hands Returning Home and Cotton Pickers are now lost, but Tongues, subtitled Holy Rollers, is a lively scene depicting a revival meeting in a makeshift storefront church. "Jesus Saves" is emblazoned on the wall in the meeting place for charismatic Christians, who, possessed by the Spirit, writhe to and fro in a frenetic dance while speaking in tongues, a phenomenon of spontaneous and unintelligible speech--like a foreign language--held by Pentacostal Christians to be the language of the Holy Spirit speaking through the participants.

Motley's Arkansas landscapes are inspired by Corot and the Impressionists. Although they achieve a certain dreamy, atmospheric effect, a sense of solid composition in these landscapes is relatively weak. It was in Paris the following year that the artist, observing both the old masters and recent European art, developed his own mature style in a number of his best-known works, notable for their masterful composition, which will be discussed in the following section. Upon his return from Arkansas the fall of 1928, he contracted malaria and most of the following winter was spent recovering.[44]

In the summer of 1929, Motley sailed from New York harbor for a year of work and study in Paris accompanied by his wife, Edith. The Motleys found much more tolerance in Paris for their interracial marriage. The French treated them “so much better,” Motley later recalled.[45] They first moved into a Hotel on the Rue Campagne-Premier in Montparnasse, geographically, the very center of the Parisian avant-garde at that time.[46] They would remain there for the first two months of their stay. The Motleys socialized with few people in France (as in the United States). Motley could speak French and didn’t want to be around the Americans.[47]

Shortly after his arrival, Motley started to do genre scenes of Paris. These, however, abandon traditional perspectival space and opt for a flatter space in paintings such as Dans la Rue, where objects further from the viewer are represented as higher up in the picture plane. This is a technique of naive painters, such as Henri Rousseau and Motley seems to be purposely adopting it, perhaps to emphasize those "primitive" elements he found so intriguing in the African subjects of the previous year. He also simplifies the figures into doll-like forms as in Seurat, whose work he was familiar with from Chicago.[48] The contemporaneous painting of American artist, Guy Pene du Bois also comes to mind, as does the figural work of Mexican artist Diego Rivera.[49] In Cafe Paris, Motley utilizes the vertical and horizontal motifs of the cafe window and the liquor cabinet and mirror to divide the space architectonically. It also serves to flatten out the entire composition in a way that is informed by the example of Cezanne. The figures in Motley's composition are strangely disconnected from one another and the somber, gray light adds to the gloomy mood of the piece. The bearded figure on the table recalls Giorgio de Chirico’s The Child’s Brain.

Surrealism was at the height of its popularity in 1929, with the publication of the Second Manifesto of Surrealism earlier that year and the spectacular arrival in Paris of the young Spanish painter, Salvador Dali.[50] Even Picasso was influenced by Surrealist preoccupation with fantasy. The purposely naive style of Marc Chagall also comes to mind as a parallel to Motley’s abandonment of the Renaissance space he was taught at the Art Institute. It was not, however, the fantasy element in these artists, but their way of organizing space--apparently naive, yet structurally informed by the late Cezanne--that was an influence on Motley.

In some ways one would think Motley would be more interested than he was in Surrealism and related work mentioned above, given the African fantasies he had painted the previous year. Motley, characteristically, remained aloof from the affairs of the Parisian avant-garde and chose to work in isolation. The artist seemed more now than ever dedicated to portraying urban realism in a "primitive" yet sophisticated manner. And he continued to explore the black experience in Paris.

In Blues, all these influences reach their fullest maturity. Often mislabeled as a depiction of Harlem nightlife, Blues portrays a Parisian cabaret, the Petite Café, frequented by Africans and West Indians of the black diaspora.[51] Motley here eliminates perspective entirely, opting instead for a repeating series of ovoid forms revolving loosely around a dark brown vortex at almost the very center of the composition, formed by the male dancer's back demarcated by his girlfriend's lighter brown arm, hand and cigarette.

In his essay, “The Blues Aesthetic,” which was published in a catalogue accompanying a relatively recent exhibit by the same name, Richard Powell sees in the composition of Blues, an evocation of parallel compositional elements in the music of Louis Armstrong.[52] Rhythms interrupted, fragmented and improvised over a structured, repeating chord progression find similarities, Powell points out, in Motley’s painting. It also resembles, according to Powell, a Synthetic Cubist collage or a quilt.[53]

It also has more traditional sources, at least in terms of technique.[54] Motley, studying the Venetian masters of the Renaissance in the Louvre, imitated them by doing an underpainting in Venetian Red (an orange-red earth color) and Burnt Sienna, then glazing other colors over this in translucent or transparent layers. The orange-red underpainting serves to unify the colors glazed or scumbled over it and gives it almost the effect of being lit from behind--like the canvas is radiating light, almost as if it were a stained glass window. The smoldering color in Blues brings to mind the rich, warm glow of alcohol, illegal in the United States at that time, but not in France. The painting is perhaps the perfect evocation of the Jazz Age, music as popular in Paris as in Chicago or New York. Motley was also aware of portraying the diversity of African and Diaspora skin color in this painting, an interest of his from the uncommissioned portraits of biracial women painted earlier. Most of the people, we must assume, are African or from the West Indies with perhaps a few African Americans.

In this painting, one should also note the corpulent, balding man on the far left of the composition playing the trombone. This figure makes frequent appearances in Motley’s paintings, usually on the periphery of the activity--an aloof outsider. It this author’s contention that this figure is a stand-in for the artist himself, although the character does not resemble Motley physically. The fat man, like the repeated inclusion of a small brown dog in some paintings and the presence of the Motley house in various contexts in a number of later paintings form a code that runs through his work--a leitmotif that a casual observer, or really anyone unfamiliar with the entire body of Motley’s work, would miss. The outsider figure in Motley’s work may be a sign of the alienated artist/observer/voyeur--a resident rather than a citizen--a view from the margins. This iconography proliferates in the 1930s.

In Jockey Club, also of 1929, Motley further explores the effects of artificial light, this time an outdoor scene of the popular nightclub in Paris.[55] Alternately blue and orange light gives this portrayal of Parisian nightlife a glowing effect similar to Blues, but more dramatic--closer in coloration to Kikuyu God of Fire from 1927 mentioned earlier. Here, the figures are all Caucasian--except the brightly red uniformed dark-skinned, black doorman who stands before the entrance, burning with orange from within--a doorway to a blast furnace of sizzling hot jazz. Beneath the joy and excitement of this night spot, however, the viewer senses a certain sinister or dangerous aspect that is also reminiscent of the artist’s earlier African-theme paintings of tribal life. Particularly menacing in this respect is the policeman to the right of center. His solid stance, legs spread apart, arms akimbo, is in striking contrast to the playful, curvy figure of the doorman, standing in a casual but engaging manner, weight on one leg, hand in pocket, regarding the policeman and grinning like the proverbial cat that ate the bird. This sly trickster is doorman to an inferno.

In October 1929, Motley and his wife moved to Montmartre, a neighborhood once inhabited by avant-garde artists, but now much more isolated than Montparnasse.[56] This isolation seemed to suit the artist. Motley moved into a two-dwelling house above sculptor Benjamin Greenstein, a Jewish American artist.[57] Edith became ill and had to return to the United States in November and so Motley was alone for over three months. Motley began a diary in January 1930.[58] In it he chronicled his activities. He turned now to American subject matter once again, painting Sharks (Playing Poker), Veterans, and Spirituals. He also did portraits of three persons of African descent, including Miss Zaida, “a very pretty Haitian girl,” a male model from Martinique as well as a Sengalese man. He speaks often of his loneliness. Edith returned on March 1, 1930.[59]

Motley’s mother visited them in April. The diaries speak of tensions between Archibald and Edith at the time his mother was visiting them in Paris. The artist’s portrait of his wife, completed during the months of the diary, is formidable. “Quite an interesting mouth…” writes Motley, satisfied with the portrait, on the same page that he is criticizing Edith for her “nasty ways,” in her relations with mamma[60] Staring relentlessly at the viewer, Mrs. Motley is decked out in an expensive fox stole and fashionable cloche hat. Perhaps this is the kind of high society portrait Motley had hoped he would be commissioned to paint. This piece, more than any other painting by Motley, resembles the work of Otto Dix, the German realist, noted for his indictments of the pretensions of the wealthy. It should be remembered that 1930 was also the year Grant Wood painted his celebrated American Gothic, another brutally realist portrayal, not of the urban rich, but the rural poor. Motley also did a much more intimate, almost vulnerable nude study of Edith while they were in Paris. One of his most academic paintings since his student days, it suggests the type of art Motley might have done, had he chosen to pursue the classical painting he was taught rather than the stylized realism he had developed in Paris.

The entry about the conflict between the artist’s wife and his mother is one of the few personal items in the Paris diary, which mostly describes when the artist got up, logs in hours of work, describes diet and weather, complains about the lack of adequate heat in the studio, mentions card games, and occasionally hints at hangovers from too much Vin Rouge the evening before. The Guggenheim Foundation offered to extend Motley’s fellowship for another six months, but Motley decided to return to Chicago after one year abroad.[61]

The years from 1930 to the outbreak of the World War II were among the most productive and happy of Motley’s career. Cushioned from the worst effects of the Great Depression by savings and by ownership of the house on West 60th Street, Motley could devote the major portion of his time to painting, working only intermittently at part-time jobs to bring in extra income.[62] A son, Archibald Motley III, was born to the Motleys in 1934, adding an additional economic responsibility. With the advent of the W.P.A./F.A.P. (The Works Progress Administration/Federal Arts Project) in 1935, Motley became employed in the easel division and he was secure financially until the program was discontinued in 1941.[63] During these years, in addition to painting easel pictures, the artist designed and executed murals through the mural division and was also commissioned to do murals at Howard University in Washington D.C. through the Treasury Relief Arts Project.[64]

Among his most successful portraits are those painted in the early 1930’s. Of these, Brown Girl After the Bath is outstanding and represents well the new level of sophistication his work reached after his return from abroad. Entered into the 1932 exhibition of Chicago artists at the Art Institute, it combines the academic style with compositional devices used in his genre scenes. A sensuous, relaxed African American woman is shown nude at her dressing table, facing away from us. In the reflection in the mirror, she makes eye contact with the viewer, who on first glance seems to look down at her from a stairway or landing. Upon closer inspection, however, the mirror tilts forward slightly, creating the illusion of the viewer’s downward glance, but reflecting the headboard to a bed in the area behind the woman. The viewer may therefore be seeing the scene from the bed. A small lamp on the dressing table gently illuminates the room and creates soft shadows. The peculiar mood of both intimacy and psychological distance is created largely through the viewer’s indirect gaze through the mirror and the discovery that his view of her may be from her bed. Critic C. J. Bulliet used the painting to say of Motley it “indicates that genius may not be far off.” He continued: “Motley uses rich, barbaric colors in drenching his negro nude and her surroundings, in the violet end of the color scale. He has overdone the picture in thedirection of juicy melodrama, in the way Gerome used to go with his Turkish harems, but he has the right idea… There is no advice to tone the color down.”[65]

His other self-portrait was also painted at this time. Subtitled, Myself at Work, it shows the artist in beret and smock working on a painted nude. Surrounding him are the tools of his trade and symbols of his identity: brushes, a crucifix, a classical statuette, and a porcelain elephant, a possible reference to Africa. It was also during these years that the artist did some of his best-known genre scenes of life in the “Black Belt,” Chicago’s African American neighborhood on the South side where ninety percent of blacks living in Chicago resided at that time.[66] It should be explained that Motley’s family was part of what has been described as Chicago’s “Old Settlers,” or “Black Aristocracy.”[67] These were African Americans who migrated north to Chicago mostly from the borderline Southern states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Louisiana during the last decades of the nineteenth century. For the most part, they were absorbed into the fabric of Chicago’s middle class and assimilated into the predominately white society of the time.

Beginning with the labor shortage created by the first World War, what has been described as the “Great Migration” brought over a quarter of a million new African Americans to Chicago, most of them from the deep South, and they brought their Southern culture with them. It was these later arrivals that made up the bulk of the residents of Chicago’s “Black Belt,” at that time and it is to the depiction of African American life in this milieu of storefront churches, chicken shacks, taverns and pool halls that Motley turned in the 1930’s. In The Plotters, Boys in the Back Room and The Liar, all indoor scenes, Motley expands on the tightly cropped, flattened, “syncopated” composition he utilized so successfully in Blues. In each of them is also included, in the periphery of the main action, the “outsider figure,” either in the form of the heavy balding man mentioned earlier, or in the form of the little brown dog in the lower left corner of The Liar. In this painting, Motley’s abandonment of perspective in favor of flatness is very bold. This is most evident in the pool table in the background or in the disparity between the positioning of the wine bottle and the table on which it sits. With this modified Cubist approach to form, figures can be placed in a shallow space and manipulated by the artist in a collage-like manner. While embodying Cubist devices, it also resembles folk art in its organization of pictorial space and, as Richard Powell would point out, is equally informed by quilts.

Motley extends this sophisticated naive style to his outdoor scenes, Black Belt and Barbecue, where the simplified bodies of the people--on the crowded street in the first or at a neighborhood barbecue in the second painting--recede in frieze-like rows of flattened figures rather than being drawn in perspective recession. In this way, the artist can indicate deeper space and suggest the distance between figures while retaining the relative flatness needed for his developing manner of reconciling two- and three-dimensional space. In these paintings Motley also continues his exploration of contrast between warm artificial lights and natural, rather cool twilight. The “outsider” figure is here again present, becoming almost a “signature” for the artist. During the first half of the decade, Motley continued his impressive exhibition record. He work successfully passed the jury from 1930-1933 and again in 1935 for the annual exhibitions of Chicago artists held at the Art Institute.[68] He also participated in group shows at the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Harmon Foundation and the Anderson Galleries in New York City, as well as the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran and Howard University in Washington D.C. and in Toledo and Ann Arbor.[69] He also was in an exhibit abroad with the American Scandinavian Foundation, Stockholm, Udstilling af Amerikansk Kunst 1930.[70]

In 1933, Motley mounted a solo exhibition for the Chicago Women’s Club in their Tudor gallery.[71] Motley was invited to participate in the “Century of Progress” exhibition of 1934. This event, it has been said, marks Chicago’s embrace of Modernism, officially, at least.[72] Motley was among the first artists to be appointed to the new federal programs for the arts. The pilot program was launched as a six-month project and was called the Public Works of Art Project (P.W.A.P.).[73] Motley participated in its inaugural national exhibition at the Corcoran Museum in Washington D.C. in the late spring of 1934.[74] With the success of this project, the following year the W.P.A./F.A.P. was funded by congress as a massive work relief project employing thousands of artists and designers and related support personnel. Motley was employed in the easel division, but occasionally designed and executed murals. In 1935, Motley was commissioned by the Treasury Department’s mural program (T.R.A.P.) to execute a mural at Howard University in Washington D.C. for the lobby of one of their new buildings, Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall.[75] Appropriately enough, the mural was about Douglass, the nineteenth century black abolitionist. Unfortunately, the work has since been painted over. While working on the mural at Howard, Motley was appointed as a visiting instructor for the duration of his stay and was provided room and board for himself, his wife Edith and their two-year-old child.[76]

In Washington, the artist painted one of his best-known genre scenes, Saturday Night. In this painting a provocatively dressed female dancer gesticulates in an unrestrained manner, covering her face with her hand thereby rendering her both more anonymous and more available for our prurient gaze. The waiter behind her leans forward, counterbalancing her gesture with his own “dance.” Another white clad waiter still farther back creates yet another inflection with his movement. Caught up in the rhythm of the music, even the patrons sitting around the tables lean to and fro as the whole bar becomes enlivened by the intoxicating rhythm of the syncopation. Echoing the dancer’s diagonal form in the upper left corner is Motley’s “outsider” figure, this time cast as the bartender. Aloof and apart from the main action, he remains a detached observer. Following the success of his mural for Howard University, he was commissioned to do other murals. Band Playing, Negro Children, and Dance Scene were painted for the music room of the Nicolas Elementary School in Evanston and Recreation for the auditorium of the Doolittle School in Chicago.[77]

In 1935 Motley won a competition to do a large painting on canvas for the Wood River, Illinois post office, which he finished in 1936. It depicts nineteenth-century postal service via horse and carriage under armed guard.[78] For the Easel Division, Motley also did other large canvases for specific sites such as In a Garden (A Study in Early Moonlight and Artificial Light) for the State Sanitarium in Evansville, Indiana. His paintings were placed, by the W.P.A., in various public buildings in Chicago including the Hall Branch Library, Humboldt Park Field House, the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, and the Juvenile Court.[79]

Sketchbooks from the period include designs for murals that may or may not have been executed.[80] Among these designs, Marijuana Joint is an interesting glimpse into what appears to be a coffee house, where everyone sits around tables smoking marijuana cigarettes (“vipers,” in the parlance of the time). Although this depiction seems shocking for a public mural, it must be remembered that marijuana was legal in the 1930’s and in fact was sometimes used as an inexpensive replacement for alcohol during the years of prohibition. Marijuana smokers, back room plotters, gamblers and other such characters form the demimonde of Chicago’s black community held a special interest for Motley. “Shadies” was the contemporary slang term, used at the time in the black community to describe people, like the “Policy Men,” (racketeers for the illegal lottery) who operated on the fringes of respectability.[81] Motley, in his portrayal of life in the Black Belt, is interested in representing life in this milieu. Several of the sketches are for a series of paintings representing African American history, collectively titled The Evolution of the Negro, the series was to document the progress of the race which he first outlined in his Guggenheim application for travel abroad in 1928. Of these proposed paintings at least two were executed as murals for the Evansville State Hospital: Negroes Captured in Africa, and Introduction of Slavery into the United States –both of which have been destroyed.[82]

In Africa, one of the few remaining paintings, pre-colonial African tribesmen dance around a ritual fire in the moonlight. A haunting work, it romanticizes Africa, and like the earlier series of African paintings produced for his New York exhibition, it is not based on authentic tribal customs, but is an evocation of primal beginnings. Perhaps the painting is ultimately more impressive as a study of warm and cool light: the smoldering orange of the fire juxtaposed with the blue highlights on the torsos and heads of the dancers. In Carnival, he uses the same color scheme to represent a traveling carnival in Bronzeville at night bustling with activity and glaringly illuminated by the artificial light of the midway. Of the same dimensions and year as Africa, it could be a pendant piece, showing the continuity between life in Africa and contemporary amusements in the black community. The same mysterious illumination permeates each piece, and the tent in the left background is the exact position of the wooden hut in Africa.

Arrival at Chicksaw Bayou of the Slaves of President Davis, now in the collection of Howard University, may have been a study for another painting in the series. A number of studies remain in the sketchbooks of other pieces on this theme. How many of them were actually executed as murals is unknown. In the work Motley did under the auspices of the W.P.A. during its last few years, his paintings became increasingly stylized. In Sunday in the Park, for example, the trees take on fantastic shapes and colors become lighter, more arbitrary and decorative, while the figures in this painting as well as in Playground, and the two versions of Lawn Party (perhaps Motley’s answer to Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte), become even simpler and flatter than previously.


Motley was also associated with another W.P.A. project, the South-Side Community Art Center, which opened its doors in 1940.[83] Motley participated in its inaugural exhibition. Luckily the community center was able to continue even after the withdrawal of federal funding the following year. In 1941, the federal government phased out its relief programs for the arts and Motley, like thousands of other artists lost his financial support. Although he had painted tirelessly and exhibited widely throughout the period between his return from Paris and the entry of the United States into the Second World War, he sold relatively few paintings to private individuals and had failed to secure a commercial gallery who would represent his work.

In 1942, Motley, his wife and their eight-year-old son moved to 3518 South Wentworth Avenue, where they lived until 1948, when they returned to the house on 60th Street. Without the government support and without a commercial dealer, the Motleys hit hard economic times. However, the artist continued to work and sold occasionally. Edith Motley also worked to help with the family income. Edith died in December 1948 of heart failure. To support his son and aging mother, Motley got a job with Styletone, a manufacturer of hand-painted decorative shower curtains.[84] His productivity lessened during these decades. He worked at Styletone until 1957, and then briefly with Artistic Inc., also painting shower curtains. He traveled to Mexico during this period with his brother, Willard, by now a celebrated novelist.[85] In 1957, he retired from his job and applied for social security benefits.

Some of the artist’s strongest genre scenes of Chicago are from this period. Some of these, for example, Christmas Eve, and Extra Paper (State Street Scene), are set in white neighborhoods. In both these pictures, the Motley family home on 60th Street is shown in the background, although by this time, the neighborhood was almost entirely populated by Blacks (the State Street picture also includes the “outsider” figure and the dog).


In Gettin’ Religion, the artist depicts an evangelical street preacher perched on his soapbox accompanied by musicians, including the “outsider” figure playing his horn. It is one of Motley’s most arresting night scenes. Prominently featured in the background is the Motley home. During the same year Motley painted Casey and Mae in the Street, perhaps the most complex of his compositions. Casey was a colorful street person who entertained passers-by with his trained chicken, named after the movie star, Mae West.[86] It is a lively scene, filled with the action of the busting street. The Motley House is also present in the left background next to Jack’s barbershop, a shop that actually existed in the Black belt, although of course it was not near the Motley home. The house is distorted and squeezed in at an impossible angle. What could be a more painfully distorted image for the artist desperately trying to “fit in” to a community to which he felt he did not entirely belong? This sense of alienation is underscored by the presence of the “outsider” figure in this picture standing apart from the whirling crowd close to the viewer, nonchalantly smoking his cigar and hunched over as if not to call attention to himself and yet spotlighted for us by the glare of the street lamp and his proximity to the picture plane.

Bronzeville at Night of 1949 is Motley’s last Chicago street scene. In it, he sums up all the devices he had used over the past quarter of a century: the flattened composition, the artificial light, the bustling crowd showing the economic, social and color diversity of the black neighborhood. “Dickties” (“respectables”) mingle with “shadies” in a rich and lively panorama of street life. In this painting as well both the Motley house and the “outsider” can be found. During the 1950’s, Motley painted less, perhaps because of the responsibilities of his job. Motley mounted two solo exhibitions during the decade, both of them at the Chicago Public Library, in 1953 and 1957, respectively.[87] In 1953, Motley was pictured in Ebony, in connection with a story about the Styletone, which employed Motley and other artists painting shower curtains, a usiness conceived of and managed by Black entrepreneurs. Styletone awarded him a prize in 1950 for Gettin’ Religion.[88]

It was during these years that Motley made trips to Mexico with his younger brother, Willard. There seem to have been at least two lengthy stays in Mexico during the period. While there, Motley did genre scenes of Mexican life. His palette lightened in accordance with the brilliant light of Mexico and became dominated by pastel violet, warm pinks and light blue-greens. The figures become even more anonymous than his earlier work, often lacking faces. He experimented with painting on woven petate grass mats, which have a rough texture. In 1957, when the artist was sixty-six years old, he retired from his job and moved into an apartment near his son.

Motley painted very little during the 1960’s and 1970’s. In Barbecue, the artist revisits a familiar theme: an outdoor cookout within a large fenced-in enclosure or back yard. The colors are lighter in tone and closer in value than the twilight and night scenes of earlier decades and dominated by a red and green complementary color scheme that creates an extraordinary glowing quality. The scene includes what may be a self-portrait just left of the brick cooking grill, seated at a table with a companion, whose back is to us. The figure of the balding man is placed directly in front of him, overlapping him in the flat, collage-like arrangement of which Motley is a master. The corpulent figure’s gray hair tells us he has aged right along with the artist.


From 1963 to 1972 the artist worked on a large painting that dealt with the civil rights movement. His only allegorical painting, it includes an old Southern mansion, a devil (complete with tail and bat wings), Klu Klux Klan members with a burning cross, a lynching, a broken church window, portraits of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the Statue of Liberty, among other things. Entitled, The First one Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, the picture is one of Motley’s last completed paintings.


From the late 1960’s to the present, the artist’s work has been featured prominently in a number of important exhibits, most of them dealing with black art. Motley was awarded an honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1980, and was one of ten Black artists honored by President Jimmy Carter at a White House Reception.[89] The artist died of heart failure on January 16, 1981 at the age of eighty-nine in his apartment.[90] Motley’s real contribution to the history of American art is only currently being re-evaluated as more attention is being directed toward African-American artists and in particular, the artists of the “New Negro” movement (their own name for it) from the period between the wars. It is becoming increasingly clear that what has usually been referred to as the Harlem Renaissance (the New Negro movement), although centered in New York City, had important outposts in Chicago and Paris as well, cities with which Archibald J. Motley Jr. was quite familiar. Any general account of the movement in Chicago would have to include Motley as one of its leading and most cosmopolitan exponents.


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