Archibald John Motley Jr. Tongues (Holy Rollers). 1929. Oil on canvas, 29 1/4 × 36 1/8" (74.3 × 91.8 cm). Bequest of Janice H. Levin (by exchange)

“I’ve always wanted to paint my people just the way that they were.”

Archibald Motley Jr.

“I’ve always wanted to paint my people just the way that they were,” said Archibald Motley Jr.1 Motley knew he wanted to be an artist from childhood. Born into a supportive family in Chicago, he attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the few programs at the time that admitted Black students. He became the preeminent “Jazz Aged Modernist”2 and one of the most recognized African American painters in prewar America.

Chicago’s Bronzeville—the South Side community where growing numbers of Black American migrants were forced to live due to strict socially and politically inscribed codes—became Motley’s subject matter, and he embraced it with palpable energy and a sharp eye for nuances of race, class, and social position. In paintings like Black Belt, he immortalized “the Stroll”—the main street dotted with clubs and bars, and the setting for performances by people looking to see and be seen. Those looking for salvation after indulging their vices might search out a nearby Pentecostal Church service, like the one captured in Tongues (Holy Rollers). Elder Lucy Smith’s healing services, during which worshipers might be seized by the Spirit to speak in tongues, were social as much as religious events in Motley’s Chicago, and were broadcast via radio nationally and internationally.

Seemingly quiet and more conservative, though no less insightful, are Motley’s portraits. Studies in self-possession, the women he portrayed are impeccably coiffed and dressed. His portraits of African Americans reflect a broad array of skin tones, and celebrate with quiet dignity the strong women in his life and community, including his mother, his grandmother, and an art patron.

If, as scholar Richard J. Powell has written, “Motley brought a cynicism and an eternally wry, often whimsical perspective to his subject matter,”3 his subject matter also challenged stereotypes of all kinds—those of racial uplift as well as of cruel mockery. If some of Motley’s works exposed the behavior—both good and bad—of the South Side’s denizens, others captured the intimate relationships and quiet moments of their Black subjects, who were still often presented as racist caricatures in popular culture. Equally radical was his commitment to figuration and storytelling in his pictures. Characterized by rhythmic movement and saturated colors, Motley’s paintings were created during decades when the modern art establishment celebrated abstract art. His complex images of the city where he was raised, lived, and died at the age of 89 are multifaceted stories told by an ultimate insider. His work would go on to inspire several generations of Chicago’s Black artists, including Charles White, Eldzier Cortor, and Barbara Jones-Hogu.

Esther Adler, Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2022

  1. Archibald Motley, oral history, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, p. 13: https://www.aaa.si.edu/download_pdf_transcript/ajax?record_id=edanmdm-AAADCD_oh_212913.

  2. This nomenclature is taken from the 2014–16 retrospective exhibition Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, organized by Richard J. Powell at the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University.

  3. Richard J. Powell, “Becoming Motley, Becoming Modern”, in Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, ed. Richard J. Powell (Durham, N.C.: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2014), 113.

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