“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.”
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. 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.” 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.