Archibald John Motley, Jr. (1891-1981) exemplifies the cultural diversity within the American modernist art community known as the New Negro Movement. Motley is best known for his colorful chronicling of the African-American experience during the 1920s and 1930s, depicting a vivid, urban black culture that bore little resemblance to the conventional and marginalizing rustic images of black Southerners which were common during this era.
Although ideologically associated with the Harlem Renaissance artists, Motley never became part of the enclave of artists who formed the Harlem art community. Motley was born in New Orleans and spent the majority of his life in Chicago, participating in the Chicago Black Renaissance. His nightclub and crowd scenes, heavily influenced by the jazz culture of Chicago’s “Black Belt” district, remain some of his most popular works.
Motley was ideologically influenced by the writings of reformer and sociologist, W.E.B. Du Bois and Harlem Renaissance leader Alain Locke. Like many of the artists associated with the New Negro Movement, Motley believed that art could be used as a device to create cultural awareness. At the same time, he recognized that African American artists were overlooked and under supported, compelling him to write The Negro in Art, an essay on the limitations placed on black artists that was printed in the July 6, 1918, edition of the influential African American newspaper, Chicago Defender.
Motley sought to educate individuals on the politics of skin tone. Motley himself was of mixed ethnicity, which included, African-American, European, Creole, and Native American ancestry. He recognized that different statuses were attributed to African-Americans based on the the color of their skin, and that society equated lighter skin tone with privilege. Motley examined and distinguished ethnic identities and miscegenation through images of women of mixed ancestry.
Motley portrayed the diversity he saw within the African American community through a series of portraits of women of mixed descent, entitled The Mulatress (1924), The Octoroon Girl (1925), and The Quadroon (1927). In 1928, The Octoroon Girl was awarded the Harmon Foundation gold medal in Fine Arts which included a $400 monetary award.The following year, Motley was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship which funded a yearlong stay in Paris. There he created Jockey Club (1929) and Blues (1929), two notable works portraying groups of American expatriates enjoying the Paris nightlife.
During the Great Depression, Motley’s work was subsidized by the Works Progress Administration of the U.S. government. He also participated in the Mural Division of the Illinois Federal Arts Project, for which he produced the mural Stagecoach and Mail (1937) which still decorates the wall of the post office in Wood River, Illinois.
In the late 1930’s, Motley began frequenting the center of African American life in Chicago, the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side, known as the Black Belt. The bustling cultural life he found there inspired numerous multi-figure paintings of lively jazz and cabaret nightclub scenes. Motley portrayed African-Americans as a dynamic culture. The figures in his paintings were always cheerful and full of exuberance.
Even as Motley’s focus shifted from individual portraits to nightclub and crowd scenes, he continued his motif of racial diversity. Rather than limiting his palette to a single color, Motley’s street scenes took care to denote a variety of complexions for African Americans. In a 1978 interview with the Smithsonian Magazine, Motley describes how each individual he paints has a unique skin tone:
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.
After Motley’s wife died in 1948, he stopped painting for eight years, working instead at a company that manufactured hand-painted shower curtains. His passion for painting returned during his travels to Mexico to visit his nephew, author Willard Motley (Knock on Any Door, 1947; Let No Man Write My Epitaph, 1957). During his visits to Mexico, Motley created several works inspired by the Mexican culture, such as, Jose with Serape and Another Mexican Baby (both 1953).
Though Motley’s artistic production slowed significantly in his later years, his work continued to be included in numerous exhibitions. In 1971, the Public Broadcasting Service produced the documentary tribute The Last Leaf: A Profile of Archibald Motley. Upon Motley’s death, scholarly interest in his work revived. In 2014, his work was the subject of a large-scale traveling retrospective, entitled, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, originating at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.