Home > Uncategorized > February 25 – Archibald Motley, Jr.

February 25 – Archibald Motley, Jr.

83 years ago today, the front page of The New York Times featured a story entitled, “One-Man Show of Art by Negro, First of Kind Here, Opens Today. This was the first time an artist of any race had ever made front page news in the NYT, and he just happened to be Black. Who was this influential artist of the Harlem Renaissance?

Archibald John Motley, Jr was born in New Orleans in 1891, but moved to the predominately white Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side as a child. His father worked as a ‘Pullman Porter’ on George Pullman’s sleeper cars. At the time, this was considered one of the best jobs available to African American men, and this income provided Motley with a relatively stable upbringing and education.

After turning down a scholarship to study architecture, Motley chose instead to enroll at the Art Institute of Chicago. At this conservative institution he received a classical training while secretly developing his own Jazz-influenced style of Modernist-Realist paintings.

Nightlife, 1943

After graduating in 1918, Motley went on to become a successful painter, often seeking to capture elements of Black-American life previously absent from the art world. With paintings like ‘Nightlife’ and ‘Barbecue’ he introduced American viewers to an urban Black culture that was modern, energetic, and rich in music.

Because of his diverse upbringing and early awareness of racial differentiation, Motley also had a fascination with light and skin tone. Perhaps one of his greatest contributions to art and the American consciousness was his exploration of the diverse skin tones of Black women with varying quantities of African blood. By painting portraits of mulattoes, quadroons and octoroons, Motley subtly introduced non-Blacks to the notion that Blacks are not all the same… that they are, in fact, not actually Black. He hoped that viewers of his art would subconsciously begin to acknowledge that every Black was an individual person possessing a unique character and personality, and that each deserved a ‘fair chance’ before being stereotyped or categorized. He was, in effect, blurring the line between Black and White.

thanks for reading,


The Octoroon Girl, 1925

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