Archibald Motley

 Archibald Motley

Archibald John Motley

There is nothing borrowed, nothing copied, just an unraveling of the Negro soul. So, why should the Negro painter mimic that which the white man is doing, when he has such an enormous colossal field practically all his own; portraying his people, historically, dramatically, hilariously, but honestly

--Archibald Motley

Archibald John Motley (October 7, 1891, New Orleans, Louisiana – January 16, 1981, Chicago, Illinois) was an African-American painter who 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 is one of the first American painters who devoted his career primarily to the African American subject matter and saw it “as a means of affirming racial respect and race pride

Unlike many other Harlem Renaissance artists, Archibald Motley, Jr. never lived in Harlem.  He was therefore not a true Harlem Renaissance member like painters Romare Bearden and Aaron Douglas, and he even felt that certain New York African-American artists were as “jealous of me as they can be.”

He was born in New Orleans and spent the majority of his life in Chicago.  He graduated from Englewood High School in Chicago and was offered a scholarship to study architecture by one of his father's friends, which he turned down in order to study art.   He attended the Art Institute of Chicago 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, and he did well enough to cause his father's friend to pay his tuition.  While 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).  Motley graduated in 1918 but kept his modern, jazz-influenced paintings secret for some years thereafter.

During the 1930s, Motley was employed by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) 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 

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.  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.  Following this major New York gallery show in 1928, Motley sensed that Harlem-based artists were displeased that a Chicagoan had been featured in a solo exhibit on what was essentially their turf.

 Archibald Motley - Mending Socks

Archibald Motley, Mending Socks

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 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 DelacroixHals, 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's 1929 Paris Guggenheim grant broadened his creative horizons, yet he still kept his distance from other African-American artists in the city.   By 1929, Archibald Motley had begun to develop a reputation as an artist, attracting critical praise along with patrons actually willing to purchase his work.

In Black and White

Motley’s frequent sense of disenfranchisement stemmed from various factors.  He was of African-American, Creole and Native American descent, yet he grew up in a primarily white neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.  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.  He later married his high school sweetheart Edith Granzo in 1924, a union which at the time was not favorably viewed by either African-Americans or Caucasians and which caused her German immigrant parents who were also opposed to their interracial relationship, to disowned her for her marriage.  Due to his own mixed heritage, Motley was relatively light-skinned (a “red-bone”), and throughout his life he would always take keen note of the many nuances in skin tone among people of color.  

Archibald Motley - From New Orleans to Chicago 

Archibald Motley, From New Orleans to Chicago

He 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.  He 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.  While he generally focused on portraying African-Americans in his work, he was unhappily aware of the fact that most of his early critical and financial support came from whites.

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," and "Mulatto").  These portraits celebrate skin tone as something diverse, inclusive, and pluralistic.  They 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. 

In Motley’s Guggenheim application, he expressed beliefs that,  “further artwork portraying the Negro would bring about better relations…between the races, white and colored.”  In the summer of 1929, Motley and his wife Edith headed for France on a one-year Guggenheim Fellowship.  Initial racist comments followed shortly after their arrival, with Motley being called something less than desirable by two young Americans in Paris.  Fortunately, this bigotry remained limited to the visiting Americans and the Motleys found the French to be far more hospitable.

Paris Life

During Motley’s sojourn abroad, he visited the Louvre often, contemplated Parisian passersby and observed the city’s various nightclubs and cafes.  Significant paintings from the period were “Café Paris”, “Dans la Rue”, and the captivating “Blues”.  “Blues” is a nightclub scene, combining jazz musicians and patrons dancing in a tightly composed arrangement.  In “Blues”, Motley made a point to not include any African-Americans, even though the painting is often considered to be an example of African-Americans in art.  Motley had found a club called The Petite Café that was frequented by Africans, West Indians and French, and he celebrated their range of skin tones, making sketches and watching the action quietly from the sidelines.

Archibald Motley - Café Paris 

Archibald Motley, Café Paris

Motley seemed to prefer keeping to the sidelines in general while in Paris, avoiding contact with other African-American artists in Paris like Palmer Hayden and Hale Woodruff.  Motley stayed clear of the well-established painter Henry Ossawa Tanner as well, even though Tanner was also married to a Caucasian woman.  Tanner had moved to France to escape American racial strife.  However, Motley may have felt that Tanner was hiding from reality and not proving himself on native ground. 

When Motley’s wife Edith returned to the States for medical reasons, he felt lonely and missed her intensely, but he did not stray far from his Montmartre studio during her absence.  He worked diligently instead, producing the kind of paintings cited in his Guggenheim application, namely African-American themed scenes like Sharks (Playing Poker) and Spirituals.  He also did portraits of a strikingly dark Senegalese boy and a Haitian model dressed in a traditional costume of Martinique.  When Edith came back to Paris, Motley painted her portraits too—both in the nude and in a stylish cloche hat and fur wrap. The candid nude did not bother Edith, but she reportedly refused to allow Motley to exhibit the more dour dressed-up painting.

 Archibald Motley - Dans la Rue

Archibald Motley, Dans la Rue

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.

 Archibald Motley - Blues

Archibald Motley, Blues

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 most affluent and elite of the black community in 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

In his paintings of jazz culture, Motley often depicted Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, which offered a safe haven for blacks migrating from the South.  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.

 Archibald Motley - Bronzeville at Night

Archibald Motley, Bronzeville at Night

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".


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.

 Archibald Motley - Stomp

Archibald Motley, Stomp 

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".  It opened up a more universal audience for his intentions to represent African American progress and urban lifestyle. 

Octoroon Girl

“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.

 Archibald Motley - Octoroon Girl

Archibald Motley, Octoroon Girl

Motley was “among the few artists of the 1920s who consistently depicted African Americans in a positive manner”.   “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 that 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 nightclub 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).

 Archibald Motley - Nightlife

Archibald Motley, Nightlife

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.

No Place Like Chicago

Motley incorporated French inspiration into his style, but he did not seek French critical approval.  All of his Paris works were sent back to the United States for exhibit there, particularly in Chicago.  And while Motley would insist that his time overseas had only minimal influence on his work, there does seem to be more of a sleek, smooth, coolly hot power to the paintings done during and after the Guggenheim period.  The Guggenheim Foundation gave Motley the option of continuing his fellowship when its term came to an end, but Motley did not accept the offer.  He had not been liberated by the expatriate lifestyle and was frankly just eager to leave, later recalling: "I wanted to be home. I can't find any place like Chicago. You know, I love this place."

Recognition and awards

  • 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.



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