Archibald J. Motley, Jr.


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Painter. He numbered among the first African-Americans to portray blacks as sophisticated, fashionable, and confident urbanites who energetically partake of the city's pleasures. Although his paintings confirm the Harlem Renaissance's racial pride, the artist remained somewhat aloof from the movement, believing that its emphasis on blacks' distinctive origins in Africa and the rural South encouraged a retrograde mythology. Born in New Orleans, Motley grew up in Chicago and lived there most of his life. He graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1918 but returned the next year to attend a course of lectures given by George Bellows. His early proficiency is evident in Mending Socks (Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1924), a detailed portrait of his grandmother. In 1928 he was the second African American (only Henry Ossawa Tanner preceded him) to hold a one-person show at a New York gallery, and the following year he won a Guggenheim fellowship that sent him to Paris for year. During the Depression he found support in the federal art projects. Depressed after his wife's death in 1945 he painted little until 1953, when he made an extended visit to the Cuernavaca, Mexico, home of a nephew, the novelist Willard Motley. However, he suffered critical neglect when his integrationist beliefs became unpopular in the 1960s and beyond. From the late 1920s, Motley's mature style featured color patterns and simplified surfaces emphasizing light effects, often giving his figures a chic sleekness within vigorous but tightly constructed compositions. In Black Belt (Hampton [Virginia] University Museum, 1934), a nighttime frieze of passersby on a city street, multiple light sources define jostling figures. Across the street behind them, a street light and windows illuminate additional sidewalk activity and the advertising signs of a bustling neighborhood. Colors echo around the canvas, anchored by the design's strong verticals and horizontals.

Subjects: Art.

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