Archibald Motley Jr.

Archibald Motley Jr. was one of the most important black painters of Chicago, a city he called home and muse. In the 1920s and 30s, Motley’s paintings caught eyes across America, during a cultural renaissance often more associated with Harlem or with poetry and jazz.

Subject matter plays a most important part in my art. It is my earnest desire and ambition to express the American Negro honestly and sincerely, neither to add nor detract….I believe Negro art is someday going to contribute to our culture, our civilization1

Archibald Motley Jr. was one of Chicago’s most important painters. His art caught eyes across America starting in the 1920s, during a cultural renaissance often associated with Harlem in New York City.

Born in New Orleans in 1891, young Motley and his Catholic, middle-class family followed work north to Chicago. There they settled in Englewood, then an Italian neighborhood, where Motley and his sister attended mostly white schools.2 Motley’s family background plays a role in his earliest works, such as “Portrait of My Mother” (1919) and “Mending Socks” (1924) – as does his mixed race ancestry. Motley’s prize-winning “The Octoroon Girl” (1928) portrays a woman of 1/8th African descent with an ambiguous skin tone and dignified attire, showing intersections between class and color in African-American communities.3

Motley received classical training at the Art Institute of Chicago where he took classes with George Bellows, a regionalist painter of the American Ashcan school.4 His connections to the Institute gave Motley opportunities to exhibit and gain public recognition for his art that were hard to come by for black artists at the time. In 1928, with the help of Institute director Robert B. Harshe, Motley became the second African American artist to earn a solo show.5 Following the exhibit’s success in New York, Motley received a Guggenheim fellowship to study in Paris for a year. Paintings such as Blues (1929) are from this period. They portray jazz clubs and cabarets where ethnically diverse Parisian couples dance in harmony.6

When Motley returned to the United States, he dove into Chicago’s vibrant nightlife. For his famous Bronzeville series, Motley painted pedestrians and public gatherings, nightclubs and cabarets, pool rooms and gambling dens.7 For some, these stylized depictions helped dissolve stereotypes about blackness, showcasing the heterogeneity of black culture and the diversity of black communities. But other viewers saw Motley’s urban types more as tropes drawn from historical caricatures of African Americans.8 They pointed to figures with exaggerated facial features or faces blurred altogether (as seen in “The Argument” from 1940), or to spectacles of black religious worship, seen in (“Tongues (Holy Rollers)”  from 1929).9 Throughout his career, Motley answered these contradictory readings of his work by asserting he had a genuine intent to convey the range of possibilities for blackness.10 His paintings aimed to unpack the nuances of experience and perspective, and how both are shaped by where you live, what you look like, and the opportunities you are exposed to – sometimes in surprising combinations.

In Motley’s own career, these factors offered him advantages, such that he was featured in all the important group exhibitions of black artists in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, as well as later exhibitions more focused on recovering black artists’ contributions to American art. He was, for instance, among a select group of black artists honored at the White House in 1980, a year before his death. Most recently the Whitney Museum mounted a major retrospective of his work. At the same time, Motley’s story follows broader patterns of exclusion for black artists and there were limits to his privilege. Motley’s art pays close attention to this privilege. It acknowledges that race has no singular experience or appearance. He shows race interconnected with class, education, skin color, ancestry, gender, and even religion. In this way, Motley’s approach was a kind of intersectionality before its time.


[1] Motley in J.Z. Jacobson, Art of Today (1933)

[2] Jontyle Theresa Robinson, “The Life of Archibald J. Motley Jr” in The Art of Archibald J Motley Jr., eds. Jontyle Theresa Robinson and Wendy Greenhouse (Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1991)

[3] Amy M Mooney, Archibald J Motley Jr. (The David C Driskell series of African American art: v. 4) (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2004); Cécile Whiting, “More Than Meets the Eye: Archibald Motley and Debates on Race in Art,” Prospects 26 (2001): 465–67.

[4] Elaine D. Woodall, “Looking Backward: Archibald J. Motley and the Art Institute of Chicago: 1914-1930,” Chicago History: The Magazine of the Chicago Historical Society 8, no. 1 (Spring 1979): 53-57

[5] Robert A. Bone and Richard Courage, The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932-1950 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011)

[6] Theresa Leininger-Miller, New Negro Artists in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922-1934 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001)

[7] Richard J Powell, “Archibald Motley,” in To Conserve a Legacy: American Art From Historically Black Colleges and Universities (Andover, Mass.: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1999)

[8] Phoebe Wolfskill, Archibald Motley Jr and Racial Reinvention: The Old Negro in New Negro Art (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017)

[9] Richard J Powell, “Becoming Motley, Becoming Modern,” in Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist (Durham: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2014)

[10] “Autobiography,” n.d. Archibald J Motley Jr Papers, Archives and Manuscript Collection, Chicago Historical Society; Oral history interview with Dennis Barrie, 1978, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution:

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