The Evocative Paintings of Chicago's Jazz Age Modernist
A rare survey of the painter Archibald Motley has opened at the Cultural Center. Chicago Tonight spoke with the curators and focused on the brilliantly colorful canvases of this often-overlooked African-American painter. From dignified portraits of family members to rollicking views of Chicago night life in the '20s, '30s and '40s, Motley painted a variety of subjects and captured the Jazz Age like no one else. We get a preview of the new exhibition, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist.
View a gallery of Motley's works.
Read an interview with Valerie Browne, Motley’s daughter-in-law.
Professionally, Motley was a renowned artist and major Harlem Renaissance Figure. What was he like in person?
I met him just before he passed away. He was in a small apartment, a gallery lined with his paintings. He had a deep, resonant voice. He was incredibly engaging and bright but physically very frail. I remember he sat near the windows because he loved the play of light—you could see it in his painting. He was very gentlemanly. He had a sharp mind.
Was he still painting?
No, he was too frail to paint and had arthritis in his hands. His last painting was 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. The long title was taken from the Bible. It was about civil rights. He was inspired by the Birmingham Church bombings. He worked on it for a decade, and it’s very different from his other paintings. Like all artists, he painted his feelings. You can see it through the portrait of his grandmother; she had been a former slave.
Speaking of his family, what were his parents like? Were they supportive of his art?
They were from New Orleans, French Negro background. They moved the family to Chicago for his father to be a porter, which was a very good job for an African-American at the time. His mother was a schoolteacher. They were very supportive and that was quite amazing. His mother especially was a very important figure in his life.
He knew he wanted to be an artist from the time he was little. He worked on the trains with his father for a while. There, he met Frank Gonzales of the Illinois Institute of Technology who wanted to give him a scholarship to study at IIT. He turned it down it down to be an artist.
Motley studied painting formally at The Art Institute and in Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship. How did that training influence him?
It gave him a very strong foundation, and he moved out on his own and became more innovative. The training gave him confidence in his abilities. In Paris, he painted Blues, which is the painting most associated with the Harlem Renaissance, but he never lived in Harlem. And he actually left Paris to return to Chicago.
Why was he so drawn to Chicago?
He felt at home here. It was home. There was wonderful subject matter right here. And it’s wonderful that the exhibit is here. It’s the hometown. With the paintings in the Chicago Cultural Center and having the back drop of Chicago, it’s really very apropos.
Motley is known for his depiction of the Jazz Age in the African-American community. Did he participate in that scene?
He was kind of an insider-outsider. He came from a middle-class black family in Englewood, a neighborhood that was more white than black. He would go to Bronzeville because he was so taken with it and the people there. He was almost like an anthropologist.
Beyond his “nightlife” paintings, he also painted formal portraits. Can you talk about that?
A lot of his early work is portraiture, and they were really quite wonderful. He painted a variety of people and skin tones. He used the terms “Octoroon and Quadroon,” which came out of New Orleans. “Octoroon” means one-eighth and “Quadroon” means one-quarter. African-Americans with lighter skin usually had a higher status in society. There are people who can almost pass, and some with darker skin who were marginalized. He’s been criticized for that but he was just painting what was happening. And there was a lot of dignity in all the portraits.
People are more interested in the Bronzeville scenes and don’t always give the portraits the same attention. He was a master portraitist. The range of his talents was very staggering. The more you look, the more you see. But the portraits were also very real.
Anything you want to add about his life or his art?
I want to see him gain his rightful place in American Art history. He wanted to be known as a great artist, not just a great African-American painter. People are recognizing him as a really modern painter and it’s really richly deserved.
Interview has been condensed and edited.