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Archibald J. Motley, Jr. (1891-1981)

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The Octoroon Girl, 1925 oil on canvas 38" x 3...

The Octoroon Girl, 1925
oil on canvas
38" x 30 1/4", signed and dated

Portrait of a Cultured Lady, 1948 oil on canvas 39...

Portrait of a Cultured Lady, 1948
oil on canvas
39 1/2" x 32", signed


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Artist Information

“I think that every picture should tell a story and I think if a picture doesn't tell a story then it's not a picture.”[1]

Archibald Motley, Jr. was born in New Orleans in 1891 to Mary Huff, a former schoolteacher, and Archibald Motley, Sr., a railroad porter. When Motley was still a baby, the family moved to Chicago, where their circle of friends included civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph. The Motleys were the only African Americans in a predominantly Italian area, which left Motley somewhat isolated from the black neighborhoods of Chicago. To compensate for this absence, Motley “made it a habit to go to . . . churches, movie houses, dance halls, skating rinks, sporting houses,” where members of the city’s black communities would gather.[2] There, Motley would observe and sketch the scenes and faces that became a key component of his art as an adult, paintings that Alain Locke would one day describe as “provocative” and offering a “half-Rabelaisian version of negro city types.”[3] From the age of nine, Motley knew he wanted to be an artist, and in fifth grade, he began leaving school during lunch to go to the local pool hall, where he would make sketches of the patrons. After high school, Motley was offered a full scholarship to study architecture at the Armour Institute by its president, Frank Gunsaulas. When Motley turned it down in order to study at the Art Institute of Chicago, Gunsaulas, impressed with the young artist’s talent and ambition, offered to pay his first year’s tuition. Motley graduated from the Institute in 1918 but returned a year later for one semester to study with George Bellows. 

Initially interested in portraiture, Motley found it difficult to earn a living, due in part to the fact that most of the wealthy white patrons favored white artists, and black patrons were either financially unable to or uninterested in supporting black portrait painters. He moved to the South Side neighborhood known as Bronzeville, where he lived among many intellectuals and artists such as Marion Perkins. Despite his career early setbacks, Motley’s did have several important successes. In 1921, his painting Portrait of My Mother was accepted into the Art Institute of Chicago’s Annual Exhibition, and in 1925, Motley received the Frank Logan prize for The Mulattress as well as the Eisendrath Prize for Syncopation. Although he was turned down for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1927, that same year, Motley’s painting Mending Socks was voted the most popular in the Paintings and Water Colors by Living American Artists exhibition at the Newark Museum in New Jersey, and Motley also had his first solo show, at the New Gallery in New York City. Of the twenty-six works in the exhibition, twenty-two were sold, and Motley’s paintings were featured in articles for The New York Times Magazine and Opportunity. In 1928, the Harmon Foundation awarded him a gold medal for The Octoroon Girl, and in the following year, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he used to spend 1929 studying art in Paris.

When Motley returned to the United States, he settled back in Chicago and continued to work and exhibit there. In 1933, his paintings were include in several high-profile group exhibitions, including A Century of Progress at the Art Institute of Chicago, Contemporary Black Artists in America at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Exhibition of Works of Negro Artists at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. That same year, Motley joined the easel division of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), which was later absorbed into the Federal Art Project of the WPA. Motley completed several murals for the program in the Chicago area, and in 1938, his work was included in two WPA-themed exhibitions. In 1939, Motley participated in the Baltimore Museum of Art exhibition Contemporary Negro Art, which was accompanied by a catalogue. As part of his work with the WPA, Motley taught art classes at the South Side Community Center, where he encouraged the talent of a young Charles Sebree.

In the late 1940s, Motley’s fortunes waned, and for a time he earned a living painting shower curtains for the Styletone Company. In the 1950s, he began painting for himself again after a series of visits to Mexico, where his nephew, a successful writer, lived. Featuring bright tones to capture the Mexican sunlight, these later works are a departure from his earlier scenes of nighttime city streets and urban interiors. Motley died in 1981, and ten years later, his work was celebrated in the traveling exhibition The Art of Archibald J. Motley, Jr. organized by the Chicago Historical Society and accompanied by a catalogue. In 2004, Pomegranate Press published Archibald J. Motley, Jr., the fourth volume in the David C. Driskell Series of African American Art.

[1] Oral history interview with Archibald Motley, 1978 Jan. 23-1979 Mar. 1, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Accessed October 4, 2012.

[2] Oral history interview with Archibald Motley.

[3] Amy Mooney, Archibald J. Motley, Jr. (University of Michigan in conjunction with Pomegranate Press, 2004), 111.



Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA
DuSable Museum of African American History
Hampton University, Hampton, VA
Howard University, Washington, DC
Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY
Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, MO
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York, NY
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
South Side Community Art Center, Chicago, IL
The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY
United States Postal Service, Washington, DC
Western Illinois University, Macomb, IL


New Gallery, New York, NY

Chicago Women’s Club, Chicago, IL

Chicago Public Library, Chicago, IL

Your Heritage House, Incorporated, Detroit, MI

The Art of Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, IL; Studio Museum of Harlem, New York, NY; High Museum and Georgia-Pacific Gallery, Atlanta, GA; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Archibald J. Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, TX; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, IL; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY

Contemporary Negro Artists, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD

Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro (1851-1940), Tanner Art Galleries, Chicago, IL; traveled to Library of Congress, Washington, DC

New York/Chicago: WPA and the Black Artist, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY

Against the Odds: African American Artists and the Harmon Foundation, The Newark Museum, Newark, NJ; Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina; Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, IL

The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art, The Beach Institute African-American Cultural Center / King-Tisdell Cottage, Savannah, GA; Hammonds House Galleries and Resource Center (now Hammonds House Museum), Atlanta, GA; Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, FL; Boston University Art Galleries, Boston University, Boston, MA; Main Gallery, Arts Consortium of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH; UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures, University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), San Antonio, TX; Canton Art Institute (now Canton Museum of Art), Canton, OH; Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE; University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Art Gallery, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Honolulu, HI; Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, MI; Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo, MI; Asheville Art Museum, Asheville, NC; Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, AL; Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, Pittsburgh, PA; Cheekwood Museum of Art, Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, Nashville, TN; Huntington Museum of Art, Huntington, WV; Walter Anderson Museum of Art, Ocean Springs, MS; Meadows Museum of Art at Centenary College of Louisiana, Shreveport, LA; Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, SC; The Museum of Art/Tallahassee, Tallahassee, FL; Museum of Arts and Sciences, Macon, GA; Henry Ford Museum (now The Henry Ford), Dearborn, MI; Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, SC; Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Spelman College, Atlanta, GA; Tyler Museum of Art, Tyler, TX; Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, GA; Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Fort Wayne, IN; Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY; Huntsville Museum of Art, Huntsville, AL; Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, MS


African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY
The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art, San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio, TX; El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, TX; Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Atlanta, GA; Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH; Hunter Museum of Art, Chattanooga, TN

African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, IV, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; Fisk University Galleries, Nashville, TN
Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, Hayward Gallery, London; Arnolfini, Bristol; Mead Gallery, University of Warwick, England; M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Revisiting American Art: Works from the Collections of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, NY

African American Art in Chicago, 1900-1950, Robert Henry Adams Fine Art, Chicago, IL

African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, VIII, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; Texas Southern University Museum, Houston, TX

African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, IX, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY

Challenge of the Modern: African-American Artists 1925-1945, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY

Mood Indigo:  The Legacy of Duke Ellington – A Look at Jazz and Improvisation in American Art, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

Eye Contact: Painting and Drawing in American Art, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

African American Art:  200 Years, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

Il Secolo del Jazz: Arte, Cinema, Musica e Fotografia da Picasso a Basquiat (The Jazz Century:  Art, Cinema, Music and Photography from Picasso to Basquiat), Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rovereto, Italy; Museé du quai Branly, Paris, France; Centro de Cultura Contemporànea, Barcelona, Spain
Harlem Renaissance, Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma City, OK

INsite/INchelsea: The Inaugural Exhibition, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY, December 18, 2012-March 9, 2013

Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue from the Collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr., Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC

The Color Line: African American Artists and the Civil Rights in the United States, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, France

Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet to Matisse and Beyond, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, New York, NY
Something to Say: The McNay Presents 100 Years of African American Art, McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, TX
Histórias Afro-Atlânticas, Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) and Instituto Tomie Ohtake, São Paulo, Brazil
Truth & Beauty: Charles White and His Circle, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

Alvaro Barrington: Artists I Steal From, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, England
Out of the Crate: New Gifts & Purchases, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI
Self in the City: Highlights from the Collections of the Hudson River Museum and Art Bridges, Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, NY
The Whitney's Collection: Selections from 1900 to 1965, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
Detroit Collects: Selections of African American Art from Private Collections, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI

Black Histories, Black Futures, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, MA