Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist

Exhibition of portraits and paintings of urban life

Chicago Cultural Center

March 7 to August 31

Whitney Museum of American Art

October 2 through January 17, 2016


Archibald Motley Jr. was not your average African-American male in 1914. The man who became a world-renowned artist and contributor to the Harlem Renaissance was the son of a Pullman porter and the daughter of a former slave. But in 1914, he became a painting student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and studied there for four years. The rest, as they say, is history.

Motley, known for the paintings that chronicled African-American urban life in the 1920s and ‘30s, was born in New Orleans and raised in the Englewood community of Chicago, which was then a predominantly Irish-German-Swedish neighborhood. He socialized in Bronzeville and its vibrant cultural life inspired many of his paintings. He also spent time in Paris in 1929-30 on a Guggenheim Fellowship and in Mexico in the 1950s with his nephew, Willard Motley. (Author of novels including “Knock on Any Door” and “Let No Man Write My Epitaph,” Willard Motley was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in 2014.)

“Archibald Motley Jr., Jazz Age Modernist,” is a full-scale exhibit of about 45 of Motley’s paintings and it’s now on view at the Chicago Cultural Center. Along the corridor leading to the gallery is a display of information about Motley’s life and work. Jazz age music plays on the gallery sound system. The exhibit continues at the Cultural Center on Michigan Avenue through August 31. It will open October 2 at the new Whitney Museum of American Art on Gansevoort Street in the meatpacking district.

Motley is best known for the vibrant club and city scenes such as “Hot Rhythm” (1961) “Blues” (1929, Paris café scene), and “Barbecue” (1960). You may have seen his painting “Nightlife” and an early self-portrait at the Art Institute of Chicago. He depicted African-American elites in many of his paintings but he also showed the lives of the new residents from the South who came to Chicago in the Great Migration. His post-Paris painting, “The Picnic” (1936), is a scene reminiscent of Renoir’s 1881 “Luncheon of the Boating Party”. Motley’s “Cocktails” (1926) shows elegant black women and “Tongues” (Holy Rollers) (1929) shows worshippers at an African-American church.

He also showed African-American men in social gatherings. Don’t miss “The Boys in the Back Room” (Card Players) (1934), “The Liar” (1936), and “The Plotters” (1933).

Early in his career, Motley painted many portraits that illuminated the role of African–Americans in middle-class society. “Mulatress With Figurine” shows a well-dressed woman with a classic figurine, books and a Chinese incense burner. That 1920 painting was awarded the Frank G. Logan prize in 1925 by the Art Institute. He also painted family members, including his grandmother and his wife, Edith Granzo, whose working-class white family objected to the marriage.

Beginning in the late 1920s, Motley’s work was shown in galleries in Chicago, New York and in European exhibits and won many honors over the years. The Art Institute awarded him an honorary doctorate in fine arts in 1980 and he was one of 10 African-American artists honored by President Jimmy Carter at the White House that year. His work also has received many posthumous honors.
Motley, who spent most of his life in Chicago, died here in 1981.

The Motley exhibit originated at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC., and was curated by Richard J. Powell, professor of art and art history at Duke. In addition to its Chicago stay, it is being exhibited at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Article previously posted on

Chicago ,
Nancy is editor and publisher of Third Coast Review a Chicago arts and culture website, where she writes on theater, film, art and lit. She is a 2014 fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can find her personal writings on pop culture of all types at Nancy, recently retired after 30+ years in corporate marketing and PR, holds a B.J. from the University of Missouri and an M.A. in communications and design from Northern Illinois University. Follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. Author website: