Archibald Motley, Jr. (1914–18, HON 1980) used his art to portray the vibrancy and vitality of African American culture.
One of the most prominent African American painters of the Harlem Renaissance period was SAIC alum Archibald Motley, Jr. (1914–18, HON 1980). Born in New Orleans, never residing in Harlem or New York, and spending most of his life in Chicago, Motley lived in Englewood—a mostly white immigrant neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. The artist turned down a full scholarship in architecture from the Armour Institute (later known as the Illinois Institute of Technology) and enrolled at SAIC, where he studied under painters Karl Buehr and John Norton.
He is most famous for his depictions of African American people and culture through portraiture, daily life, and night scenes. His Self-Portrait (1920) shows him as a confident, young artist. Motley was intent on using his art to portray African Americans in a positive manner. In 1929 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship, allowing him to travel abroad to Paris where he painted Parisian nightlife scenes like Blues (1929).
Jazz culture was a great source of inspiration for Motley. Many of his most popular night and crowd scene works, like Nightlife (1943), depict Chicago’s vibrant jazz clubs.
Although the majority of Motley’s work is in private collections, some can be found at the Art Institute of Chicago, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York), as well as at museums at Hampton University and Howard University. The most recent exhibit of his works, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist at the Nasher Museum of Art, was curated by Richard J. Powell, the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke University. In a 2014 interview with Culture Type, Powell says, “Motley is this quintessential modernist artist who is forging a path in painting to clearly set himself apart from everybody else and from in particular a certain kind of way African Americans would have been assumed to paint or to create. He really breaks away from the conventions. We call him a jazz age modernist because a part of his path to modernism is to imagine his work and to imagine his subjects as products of, exemplars of, the jazz age.“