Archibald John Motley, Junior
October 7, 1891, New Orleans, Louisiana – January 16, 1981
Archibald John Motley, Jr (October 7, 1891, New Orleans, Louisiana – January 16, 1981, Chicago, Illinois) was an African-American visual artist. He studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago during the 1910s, graduating in 1918. He is most famous for his colorful chronicling of the African-American experience during the 1920s and 1930s, and is considered one of the major contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, or the New Negro Movement, a time in which African-American art reached new heights not just in New York but across America - its local expression is referred to as the Chicago Black Renaissance.
The Renaissance marked a period of a flourishing and renewed black psyche. There was a newfound appreciation of black artistic and aesthetic culture. Consequently, many black artists felt a moral obligation to create works that would perpetuate a positive representation of black people. During this time, Alain Locke coined the idea of the “New Negro,” which was very focused on creating progressive and uplifting images of blacks within society. The synthesis of black representation and visual culture drove the basis of Motley's work as "a means of affirming racial respect and race pride.” His use of color and notable fixation on skin-tone, demonstrated his artistic portrayal of blackness as being multidimensional. Motley himself was of mixed race, and often felt unsettled about his own racial identity. Thus, his art often demonstrated the complexities and multifaceted nature of black culture and life
In the beginning of his career as an artist, Motley intended to solely pursue portrait painting. After graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1918, he decided that he would focus his art on black subjects and themes, ultimately as an effort to relieve racial tensions. Most of his popular portraiture was created during the mid 1920s, however, there was an evident artistic shift that occurred particularly in the 1930s. Motley strayed from the western artistic aesthetic, and began to portray more urban black settings with a very non-traditional aesthetic style. By breaking from the conceptualized structure of westernized portraiture, he began to depict what was essentially a reflection of an authentic black community. Ultimately, his portraiture was essential to his career in that it demonstrated the roots of his adopted educational ideals and privileges, which essentially gave him the template to be able to progress as an artist and aesthetic social advocate.
During the 1930s, Motley was employed by the federal Works Progress Administration to depict scenes from African-American history in a series of murals, some of which can be found at Nichols Middle School in Evanston, Illinois. After his wife’s death in 1948 and difficult financial times, Motley was forced to seek work painting shower curtains for the Styletone Corporation. In the 1950s, he made several visits to Mexico and began painting Mexican life and landscapes.