Motley, Archibald John, Jr.

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Motley, Archibald John, Jr.

January 19, 1991

The painter Archibald John Motley Jr. was born in New Orleans. In 1894, he and his family, who were Roman Catholic and of Creole ancestry, settled on Chicago's South Side. Motley graduated from Englewood High School in 1914, receiving his initial art training there, and then began four years of study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, from which he graduated in 1918.

During his study at the School of the Art Institute, Motley executed highly accomplished figure studies. In their subdued coloring, careful attention to modeling, and slightly broken brushwork, these works reflect the academic nature of the training he received at that institution. In the late 1910s and 1920s, as racial barriers thwarted his ambition to be a professional portraitist, Motley hired models and asked family members to pose for him. His sensitive, highly naturalistic portraits show his strong feeling for composition and color.

The young painter was honored in a commercially successful one-man exhibition of his work at New York City's New Gallery in 1928, and he spent the following year in Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship. For this show Motley painted several imaginative depictions of African ethnic myths. Following the exhibition, he visited family members in rural Arkansas, where he created portraits and genre scenes, as well as landscapes of the region.

During his stay in Paris in 19291930, Motley portrayed the streets and cabarets of the French capital. In Blues, perhaps his best-known painting, he captured the vibrant and energetic mood of nightlife among Paris's African community.

After finding little outlet for his ambitions as a portraitist, Motley turned his talents to the subject of everyday life in Chicago's Black Belt. Deeply influenced by the syncopated rhythms, vibrant colors, and dissonant and melodic harmonies of jazz, his paintings evoke the streets, bars, dance halls, and outdoor gathering spots of Chicago's Bronzeville during its heyday of the 1920s and 1930s. He treated these subjects in a broad, simplified abstract style distinct from that of his portraits. Motley's Bronzeville views are informed by a modernist aesthetic.

A figure in Chicago's creative renaissance known as the New Negro movement and a participant in such mainstream artistic endeavors as the WPA Federal Arts Project, Motley applied a modernist sense of color and composition to images whose subjects and spirit drew on his ethnic roots. Between 1938 and 1941, he joined numerous other Illinois artists as an employee of the federally sponsored arts projects of the Depression era. For institutions in Chicago and other parts of the state he painted easel pictures and murals, the latter often on historical or allegorical themes.

Motley visited Mexico several times in the 1950s, where he joined his nephew, the writer Willard Motley, and a host of expatriate artists. His Mexican work ranges from brightly colored, small-scale landscapes to large, mural-like works that were influenced in style and subject by the social realism of modern Mexican art.

At the end of his career, Motley experimented in several new directions. In his long lifetime he produced a relatively small number of works, of which the most important, The First One Hundred Years, is his only painting with an overt political message. Today Motley is recognized as one of the founding figures of twentieth-century African-American art.

See also Art in the United States, Contemporary


"Archibald Motley, Jr." Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 30. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2001.

Robinson, Jontyle Theresa. "Archibald John Motley, Jr.: Pioneer Artist of the Urban Scene." In American Visions: Afro-American Art-1986, edited by Carroll Greene Jr. Washington, D.C.: Visions Foundation, 1987.

Powell, Richard J. and David A. Bailey, eds. Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance. Exhibition catalogue. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Robinson, Jontyle Theresa. "The Art of Archibald John Motley, Jr.: A Notable Anniversary for a Pioneer." In Three Masters: Eldzier Cortor, Hughie Lee-Smith, Archibald John Motley, Jr. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Kenkeleba Gallery, 1988.

Robinson, Jontyle Theresa, and Wendy Greenhouse. The Art of Archibald J. Motley, Jr. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1991.

jontyle theresa robinson (1996)
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