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 Archibald John Motley, Jr  (1891 - 1981)

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Lived/Active: Illinois/Louisiana      Known for: African-American genre painting

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Ad Code: 3
Archibald John Jr Motley
from Auction House Records.
Guanajuato, Mexico
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in 1891 into a Creole home in New Orleans, and raised in Chicago from the time he was an infant, Archibald J. Motley Jr. very early showed a talent and passion for art. When he was just 9 years old, he knew that he wanted to be an artist. He trained at the Art Institute of Chicago* from 1914 to 1918, and his first year at the Institute was funded by Frank Gunsaulus, president of the Armour Institute, which reached out to needy, talented students. Motley's teachers were John Norton, Karl Buehr, Alfred Krehbiel, George Wolcott and George Bellows. In 1919, Motley returned to the Institute to study with Bellows.

Genre of African-American life in Chicago was the inspiration for much of his painting, and he painted in a modernist* style that sometimes incorporated allusions to African tribal rites. "Motley forcefully advocated that black artists devote themselves to African-American subjects in a modern setting." (Kennedy) His scenes included south side neighborhood dance halls, pool halls, street life, bars and social clubs and also reflected the perception of whites that lighter-skinned blacks had higher social status. He believed that his paintings could promote a better understanding among white viewers of his black heritage. He said, in 1933, "It is my earnest desire and ambition to express the American Negro honestly and sincerely, neither to add nor detract, and to bring about a more sincere and brotherly understanding, between him and his white brethren." (Ackland)

In 1928, he became only the second black artist ever to have a one-man exhibition in New York City. This success was achieved at the height of the Harlem Renaissance*, the period during the 1920's when African-American writers, musicians and actors received encouragement and support for the first time in this country. In New York City, Motley also exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and the Grand Central Art Galleries*.

In 1929, Motley spent a year in Paris on a Guggenheim Grant* and then returned to Chicago. During the 1930s, he was a WPA* (Works Progress Administration) artist and did murals, which are in the Chicago State Hospital, Nichols School in Evanston, Doolittle School in Chicago and Ryerson School in Chicago.

Mending Socks, 1924, oil on canvas, is in the Charles and Isabel Eaton Gallery of the Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. It is Motley's tribute to his 82-year-old grandmother and has narrative aspects in that the objects surrounding Emily Motley tell the story of her life. An oval portrait at the upper left shows the white mistress of the house where the child Emily lived as a slave; the portrait was given to her on the day she was freed. Below the portrait are an oil lamp and books, one of them the Bible, which refers to Emily Motley's education. She was taught reading and writing along with her mistress's children, a rare privilege for a slave girl. The blue and white tablecloth, which has an American Indian design, refers to Emily Motley's Native American husband. Just above her head hangs a crucifix that reflects her strong religious beliefs. The brooch on her chest is a portrait of her only daughter. A mound of socks on the table, and scissors placed atop them refer to Emily Motley's daily routine of mending the family's socks.

Archibald John Motley, Jr. died in 1981 at age 100.

Elizabeth Kennedy, Chicago Modern, 1893-1945

* For references for these terms and others, see AskART Glossary
Peter Falk, "Who Was Who in American Art"

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at

Archibald Motley, Jr is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Black American Artists

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