Archibald Motley

Jazz Age Modernist


Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, the first retrospective of the American artist’s paintings in two decades, will originate at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University on January 30, 2014, starting a national tour.

Audio Guide

Motley is one of the most significant yet least visible 20th-century artists, despite the broad appeal of his paintings. Many of his most important portraits and cultural scenes remain in private collections; few museums have had the opportunity to acquire his work. With a survey that spans 40 years, Archibald Motley introduces the artist’s canvases of riotous color to wider audiences and reveals his continued impact on art history.

Archibald Motley includes 42 works from each period of Motley’s lifelong career, from 1919 to 1960. Motley’s scenes of life in the African-American community, often in his native Chicago, depict a parallel universe of labor and leisure. His portraits are voyeuristic but also genealogical examinations of race, gender and sexuality. Motley does not shy away from folklore fantasies; he addresses slavery and racism head on. The exhibition also features his noteworthy canvases of Jazz Age Paris and 1950s Mexico. Significant works will be presented together for the first time.

“We are extremely proud to present this dazzling selection of paintings by Archibald Motley, a master colorist and radical interpreter of urban culture,” said Sarah Schroth, Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director of the Nasher Museum. “His work is as vibrant today as it was 70 years ago; with this groundbreaking exhibition, we are honored to introduce this important American artist to the general public and help Motley’s name enter the annals of art history.”

Archibald John Motley, Jr. (1891-1981), was born in New Orleans and lived and worked in the first half of the 20th century in a predominately white neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest side, a few miles from the city’s growing black community known as “Bronzeville.” In his work, Motley intensely examines this community, carefully constructing scenes that depict Chicago’s African American elites, but also the worlds of the recently disembarked migrants from the South and other characters commonly overlooked.

In 1929, Motley won a Guggenheim Fellowship that funded a year of study in France. His 1929 work Blues, a colorful, rhythm-inflected painting of Jazz Age Paris, has long provided a canonical picture of African American cultural expression during this period. Several other memorable canvases vividly capture the pulse and tempo of “la vie bohème.” Similar in spirit to his Chicago paintings, these Parisian canvases extended the geographical boundaries of the Harlem Renaissance, depicting an African diaspora in Montparnasse’s meandering streets and congested cabarets.

In the 1950s, Motley made several lengthy visits to Mexico, where he created vivid depictions of life and landscapes. He died in Chicago in 1981.

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist opens at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and will travel to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas (June 14–September 7, 2014); the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (October 19, 2014–February 1, 2015); the Chicago Cultural Center (March 6–August 31, 2015) and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (October 2, 2015 – January 17, 2016).


Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist is accompanied by a richly illustrated exhibition catalogue with critical texts by scholars Davarian L. Baldwin, David C. Driskell, Olivier Meslay, Amy M. Mooney and critically acclaimed poet, essayist and novelist Ishmael Reed. The catalogue is published by the Nasher Museum and distributed by Duke University Press.

The exhibition will be complemented by free programs and events, including an opening talk; student-organized Art for All event; film screenings; Family Day events; book discussions; sketching in the gallery; teacher workshops and more. The Nasher Museum will hold a daylong scholarly symposium related to the exhibition. In the Spring 2014 term, curator Richard J. Powell will teach a Duke University course focused on the exhibition.



Audio Guide


Archibald John Motley Jr. is born October 7, in New Orleans, LA, to Mary Huff Motley and Archibald John Motley Sr.
After brief residencies in New Orleans, LA; St. Louis, MO; and Buffalo, NY, the family settles in Chicago, IL, with homes at Sixty-First and Sixty-Fifth and Morgan, and Sixty-Second and Sangamon.
Sister Florence (“Flossie”) Motley born.
Moves with family to 350 West Sixtieth Street. Attends St. Brendan’s Roman Catholic Church.
Attends Englewood High School.
Nephew Willard Motley born to Flossie Motley and a “Mr. Bryant,” a boarder in their home. Willard is told that Mary and Archibald Sr. are his parents and Flossie and Archibald Jr. are his siblings. Although Willard is informed of his true parentage in 1921, the Motleys maintained their pre-1921 familial roles.
After declining a full scholarship to study architecture at Chicago’s Armour Institute, applies to and is accepted into the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Frank Gunsaulus, president of the Armour Institute, pays the first year of tuition at the SAIC. Studies at the SAIC with Albert Krehbiel, John Norton, George Walcott, and Karl Buehr.
While attending the SAIC, develops friendships (and rivalries) with fellow art students, most notably Charles C. Dawson, William McKnight Farrow, William Schwartz, and Joseph Tomanek.
Pardoned from military services during WorldWar I because of a medically diagnosed “weak heart.”
Work prominently featured in the Arts and Letters Society exhibition Paintings by Negro Artists, Chicago, IL.
Publishes “The Negro in Art” in the Chicago Defender (July 6), arguing for each African American artist to “have the same broad field as our white competitors” and to be given “a chance to express himself in his own individual way.”
Occasionally joins his father, a Pullman porter, as a waiter on selected train routes.
Safeguarded by white friends during a major race riot on Chicago’s South Side. Takes a postgraduate class at the SAIC with painter George Bellows. Shares an artist’s model with former classmate Joseph Tomanek.
Included in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Twenty-Fifth Annual Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity. Shows paintings in eleven subsequent Art Institute annual exhibitions until 1949.
Marries neighborhood friend Edith Granzo.
Awarded the Frank G. Logan Prize for A Mulattress and the Joseph N. Eisendrath Prize for Syncopation from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Paintings in the Twenty-Ninth Annual Exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago are discussed at length in the French art journal Revue du vrai et du beau.
Acknowledged as “a credit to the race” in 1925 by W. E. B. Du Bois in the Crisis.
Mending Socks (1924) voted the most popular painting in the Newark Museum exhibition Paintings and Watercolors by Living American Artists, Newark, NJ. Flossie Motley’s second child, daughter Rita, dies of diphtheria.
Shows work in Exhibition of Paintings by Archibald J. Motley, Jr., New Gallery, New York, NY. Exhibition discussed at length in the New York Times and the New Yorker. Visits relatives in Pine Bluff, AR. Awarded the Harmon Foundation Gold Medal.
Awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for a year of study in Paris. Rents a room at the legendary Surrealist haunt Hôtel d’Istria at 29 rue Campagne Première, in Paris’s 14th arrondisement.
Later finds a studio/apartment at 16 rue Simon Dereure, in the 18th arrondissement. Wife and mother join him there.
Included in a major traveling European exhibition of American paintings, making stops at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, Stockholm, Sweden; the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark; and Die Kunstverein, Munich, Germany.
Included in the auction Notable Paintings and Drawings Chiefly of the Modern Schools, Property of George S. Hellman, American Art Association, Anderson Galleries, New York, NY.
Prominently featured in J. Z. Jacobson’s Art of Today, Chicago, 1933 (Chicago: L. M. Stein, 1932).
Holds one-person exhibition at the Chicago Women’s Club, Chicago, IL. Son, Archibald J. Motley III, born. Included in the exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.
Included in Exhibition of Works by Negro Artists, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Included in the exhibition A Century of Progress, The Art Institute of Chicago.
Assigned to work for the easel division of the Public Works of Art Project. Appointed visiting instructor at Howard University, Washington, DC.
Completes mural for the Nichols School in Evanston, IL, for the Illinois Emergency Relief Commission. Father, Archibald John Motley Sr., dies.
Commissioned to paint a mural for the Wood River, IL, post office by the Treasury Department. Included in Exhibition of Fine Arts Productions by American Negroes, Hall of Negro Life, Texas Centennial, Dallas, TX.
Included in the exhibition Contemporary Negro Art, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD.
Participated in the dedication and opening of the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago. Included in Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro, 1851 to 1940, Tanner Art Galleries, American Negro Exposition, Chicago, IL.
Included in the exhibition Commemoration of the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Included in the exhibition American Negro Art, 19th and 20th Centuries, Downtown Gallery, New York, NY.
Moves wife and son into a newly purchased home at 3518 S. Wentworth Avenue, but as his wife’s health deteriorates, sells the house and moves the family back into his mother’s house at 350 W. Sixtieth Street.
Included in The Negro Artist Comes of Age, a National Survey of Contemporary American Artists, Albany Institute of History and Art, Albany, NY.
Nephew Willard Motley publishes his first novel, Knock on Any Door, which is made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart in 1949.
Wife Edith Granzo Motley dies. To support son and mother, begins working for Styletone, a manufacturer of hand-painted shower curtains.
Nephew Willard Motley’s second novel, We Fished All Night, is published.
Makes several trips to Guanajuato and Cuernavaca, Mexico, where his nephew Willard resides.
Sentenced to six months in Chicago’s Bridewell House of Correction for assault with a deadly weapon against his mother’s husband, Ernest Hill.
Shows work in Archibald John Motley, Jr., Chicago Public Library, Chicago, IL.
Nephew Willard publishes his third novel, Let No Man Write My Epitaph, which is made into a film starring James Darren in 1960.
Mother, Mary Huff Motley Hill, dies.
Works intermittently on his last painting, The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone; Forgive Them Father for They Know Not What They Do.
Nephew Willard Motley dies in Mexico City.
Included in The Evolution of Afro-American Artists: 1800–1950, City College of New York in cooperation with the Harlem Cultural Council and the New York Urban League City College, Albany, NY.
Included in Invisible Americans: Black Artists of the ’30s, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY.
Included in Dimensions of Black, La Jolla Museum of Art, La Jolla, CA.
Profiled in the television documentary The Last Leaf: A Profile of Archibald Motley, on WMAQ-TV, Chicago, IL.
Honored by the National Conference of Artists, Chicago, IL.
Included in Two Centuries of Black American Art, making stops at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX; and the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY.
Because he is unable to maintain the South Side home he has lived in since 1907, moves into an apartment at 1809 N. Lincoln Park West.
Receives an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the SAIC. One of ten African American artists honoredby President Jimmy Carter at a White House reception.
Archibald John Motley Jr. dies, January 16, Chicago, IL.
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