Motley, Archibald Jr. 1891–1981
Archibald Motley Jr. 1891–1981
The writers of the Harlem Renaissance had a Chicago counterpart in the visual arts, Archibald Motley, Jr. His paintings from the height of his career in the 1920s and 1930s pulse with the rhythms of African-American urban life, and with him African-American art might be said to have reached a new maturity. Motley did not paint with a moral or a certain philosophical angle in mind. Instead he depicted black people of many types, black culture in various manifestations. He was also a pioneer among African Americans in exploring African themes and subject matter.
Of Creole ancestry Motley was born in New Orleans on October 7, 1891. His father, a shopkeeper, was run out of town by white competitors, and the family moved north to St. Louis, Buffalo, and finally the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. That area, a melting pot of immigrants from Europe, was diverse enough to offer a congenial atmosphere for an artistically talented black child, and Motley was recognized as a standout by the time he reached the fifth grade.
A standout with the football and baseball as well as with the drawing pencil, Motley graduated from Englewood High School in 1914 and was offered an architecture scholarship. Turning that down, to the surprise of the friend of his father’s who had offered it, Motley enrolled at the art school of the Art Institute of Chicago. He did well enough in his first year that his father’s friend picked up that year’s tuition tab despite the young man’s change of course.
At the Art Institute Motley studied with painter George Bellows, whose realistic treatments of American life may have influenced him. Motley married his high school sweetheart, a German-American woman, Edith Granzo, but her family’s tolerance did not extend to interracial marriage, and she was disowned. For several years Motley struggled financially, encountering racism after leaving the more open atmosphere of student life. The experience made him resolve to use black life as the central subject matter of his work and to try to combat the stereotypes that had plagued representations of blacks in art up to that point.
Motley’s new approach brought him some success. He made several innovative portraits of members of his family; one of them, Mending Socks (1924) depicts his father’s 82-year-old mother. That painting was shown in several different places, and Motley’s reputation grew. In 1925 two of his paintings, Syncopation and A Mulatress (Motley was noted for depicting individuals of mixed-race backgrounds) were exhibited at the Art Institute; each won one of the museum’s prestigious annual awards. That brought Motley art students of his own, including younger African Americans who followed in his footsteps. In the 1926-1927 art season Motley became the director of the Chicago No-Jury Society of Artists, the first black artist ever to hold the post.
At a Glance…
Born Archibald Motley, Jr., on October 7, 1891 in New Orleans, LA; grew up in Chicago; died on January 16, 1981, in Chicago; married: Edith Granzo, 1924; children: Archibald Motley lll. Education: Art Institute of Chicago, attended.
Career: Painter. Began focusing on African American subject matter, early 1920s; oil painting Mending Socks, 1924, depicted own grandmother; solo exhibition at New Gallery, New York, 1928, was second solo exhibition for an African American artist; studied art in Paris, 1929-30; returned to Chicago, 1931; numerous exhibitions in major museums, 1931-35; employed as mural painter by Works Progress Administration, 1930s; employed as maker of hand-painted shower curtains, early 1950s; visited son in Mexico and painted Mexican scenes, 1950s.
Awards: Guggenheim fellowship for study in Paris, 1929.
Throughout his career Motley’s work succeeded with audiences that had no information about his ethnicity, and the artist notched a more important “first” after Mending Socks was voted the most popular work in a 1927 exhibit of works by living American painters held at the Newark Museum outside New York: the following year New York’s New Gallery mounted a solo exhibition of his works. He was only the second African-American artist (after Henry Ossawa Tanner) to accomplish this exposure. For that exhibition Motley created several paintings based on African myth, a subject that would again occupied him on and off in the following decades.
Still on an upward trajectory, Motley won a Guggenheim fellowship in 1929 that enabled him to study art in Paris for a year. In France the artist developed the style with which he would become identified and which would bring him continued success. Blues, painted in 1929 and re-exhibited at the twentieth century’s end in a major traveling exhibition of art connected with the Harlem Renaissance, was a characteristic Motley work of the period and one which perfectly caught the spirit of the Jazz Age in its Parisian manifestation. Composed of simple shapes, the painting shows the influence of European trends which drew on African art and other traditions of the Third World. It elegantly depicts a variety of black patrons dancing at a Paris jazz club.
Returning to the United States, Motley continued to focus on urban scenes, mostly in his home city of Chicago, in paintings such as Playing Poker (1933). A number of his works were inspired in one way or another by the centrality of music in black life. Motley’s paintings continued to win showings in the three major museum centers of the country: Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. During the 1930s Motley was employed by the art project of the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) to create a series of murals showing scenes from African-American history. Although he did as much as any other artist to free African Americans from stereotypical depictions, Motley avoided overtly political themes and argued that he should not be pigeonholed as a black artist.
Motley continued to paint through the 1940s but fell into difficult financial straits after his wife’s death in 1948. For a time he was forced to take a job as a maker of hand-painted shower curtains for the Styletone Corporation. Another major phase of Motley’s career began in the 1950s, when the artist made several extended visits to Mexico to visit his nephew Willard, a successful novelist. Motley painted a group of canvases that depicted Mexican life, using a color scheme dominated by brilliant tropical sunlight so unlike the dark atmospheric colors of his city scenes.
Largely forgotten in the 1960s and 1970s, Motley died in Chicago on January 16, 1981. He was just short of his ninetieth birthday; had he lived a few years longer he would have witnessed the beginnings of the rediscovery of his works. The art historian Jontyle Robinson, later a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, received a Ph.D. for her dissertation on Motley’s work in 1983 and curated several widely heralded exhibitions that included it. One of those was held at the Chicago Historical Society, whose collection fittingly includes the largest single group of works by the artist who had documented such a crucial part of that city’s cultural life.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Men, Gale 1998.
American Heritage, February-March 1995, p. S18.
American Visions, February 1999, p. 22.
Art in America, March 1993, p. 116.
The Nation, April 27, 1992, p. 564.
Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, (website of exhibition) http://www.iniva.org/harlem/motley.html
—James M. Manheim
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