Archibald Motley Jr. and Racial Reinvention: The Old Negro in New Negro Art

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2017-09-06 04:20Z by Steven

Archibald Motley Jr. and Racial Reinvention: The Old Negro in New Negro Art

University of Illinois Press
September 2017
248 pages
6 x 9 in.
8 color photographs, 34 black & white photographs

Phoebe Wolfskill, Assistant Professor
Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies
Indiana University, Bloomington

The painter’s struggle at the crossroads of artistic expression and social progress

An essential African American artist of his era, Archibald Motley Jr. created paintings of black Chicago that aligned him with the revisionist aims of the New Negro Renaissance. Yet Motley’s approach to constructing a New Negro–a dignified figure both accomplished and worthy of respect–reflected the challenges faced by African American artists working on the project of racial reinvention and uplift.

Phoebe Wolfskill demonstrates how Motley’s art embodied the tenuous nature of the Black Renaissance and the wide range of ideas that structured it. Focusing on key works in Motley’s oeuvre, Wolfskill reveals the artist’s complexity and the variety of influences that informed his work. Motley’s paintings suggest that the racist, problematic image of the Old Negro was not a relic of the past but an influence that pervaded the Black Renaissance. Exploring Motley in relation to works by notable black and non-black contemporaries, Wolfskill reinterprets Motley’s oeuvre as part of a broad effort to define American cultural identity through race, class, gender, religion, and regional affiliation…

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Chicago’s Jazz Age still lives in Archibald Motley’s art

Posted in Articles, Arts, History, Media Archive, United States on 2015-03-21 23:43Z by Steven

Chicago’s Jazz Age still lives in Archibald Motley’s art

The Chicago Tribune

Howard Reich

Where does Chicago’s Jazz Age still live? In the paintings of Archibald Motley, on view in a new exhibition

Trumpets blared, saxophones thundered, singers belted and dancers swayed from nighttime to past sunup.

Walk along “the Stroll” — a very hot stretch of State Street from 31st to 35th streets — and you could hear and feel the music without so much as stepping inside any of the clubs, saloons, cafes, cabarets, theaters and whatnot. Nearby boulevards shook with the music, as well, for no place on Earth swung harder than the South Side of Chicago during the Jazz Age.

Roughly speaking, the epoch when Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Joe “King” Oliver and other jazz immortals lit up Chicago began in 1910, when Morton arrived from New Orleans, and extended into the 1950s.

Few of us around today were there in the Roaring ’20s heyday, but we’re fortunate that Archibald John Motley Jr. walked “the Stroll,” heard the music, ogled the dancers, treasured the proceedings and captured the scene for all time — on canvas. That glorious fact radiates from every corner of a newly opened exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center, “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” (curated by Richard J. Powell and running through Aug. 31)…

…And though the subject is music, the theme surely is the meaning of race.

“In all my paintings where you see a group of people you’ll notice that they’re all a little different color,” Motley once said in an oral history interview. “They’re not all the same color, they’re not all black, they’re not as they used to say years ago, high yellow, they’re not all brown. I try to give each of them character as individuals.”

That respect for humanity issues from all of Motley’s jazz paintings and, of course, from the music itself. Like the range of complexions in Motley’s work, jazz emerged at the turn of the previous century as a heady mix of African-American and Creole cultures in New Orleans, these societies rubbing up against one another in church, in street parades and in the city’s Storyville vice district. The shuttering of that collection of brothels and other nightspots in 1917 drove Crescent City musicians north to Chicago, where Motley — who similarly was born in New Orleans and came to Chicago in his youth — was ready to see and hear them…

Read the entire article here.

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“A Plea for Color”: Nella Larsen’s Iconography of the Mulatta

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-02-08 19:13Z by Steven

“A Plea for Color”: Nella Larsen’s Iconography of the Mulatta

American Literature
Volume 76, Number 4, December 2004
pages 833-869

Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, Professor of English
University of Wisconsin, Madison

The Negro poet portrays our group in poems, the Negro musician portrays our group in jazz, the Negro actor portrays our group generally with a touch of hilarity. . . . So why should the Negro painter, the Negro sculptor mimic that which the white man is doing, when he has such an enormous colossal field practically all his own; portraying his people, historically, dramatically, hilariously, but honestly.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., “The Negro in Art”

While the name Archibald Motley brings instant recognition only to specialized scholars, two of Motley’s paintings are so well known that they have become, for many, visual embodiments of the Harlem Renaissance. Motley’s The Octoroon Girl (1925) and Blues (1929) have served as cover art for several editions of Harlem Renaissance literature, anthologies, and literary criticism. Blues, with its colorful, energetic composition incorporating the era’s insignia—jazz, the speakeasy, and interracialism—bespeaks musical innovation and artistic intellectualism. And the recurrent appearance of The Octoroon Girl, especially on the cover of women’s fiction, continues to reproduce its subject—the mulatta—as a predominant referent in the visual culture, art, and literature of the Harlem Renaissance era.

The Octoroon Girl, which Motley considered the best of his paintings, is the second of a series in which he uses color and composition to explore miscegenation. Motley claimed to be “sincerely interested in pigmentation of the skin in regard to the lightest type of colored person . . . consisting of one-eighth Negro blood and seven-eighths caucasian blood.” In this painting, he depicts a light-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed woman with high cheekbones, an aquiline nose, and rose-colored, pursed lips (see fig. 1). Sitting comfortably on a tapestry-like couch, one arm resting on a small table with two books and a moustached figurine, she is not perfectly centered in the portrait but situated slightly to the right, her head counterbalanced by a gold-framed landscape hanging on the wall. The dramatic contrast of dark and light forms a rich backdrop for the portrait of this clearly modern woman and her penetrating gaze. Her stylish clothing, gloves, and finely drawn, tapered hands indicate her middle-class status, while her frontal position and serious expression lend a dignity that Motley consistently conveys in his portraits. The only fracture in this otherwise graceful composition is the laughing figurine at her elbow. This mocking figure, resembling a clown, undermines the sitter’s poise and subtly disturbs the dignity of the design. The figurine reminds the viewer that the portrait is an image projected by the artist and draws attention to the artificiality in modern realist painting. Placed precisely to illuminate some otherwise hidden aspect of the sitter’s character, the laughing figure suggests there is something more to the sitter than Motley’s title, which directs the viewer’s reading of the painting as an “octoroon girl.” In serving as cover art for novels that thematize racial indeterminacy, this portrait gestures at a collective, visually inflected understanding of the aestheticized markers that created the mulatta, or passing, subject in African American literary and visual culture: physiognomy, exoticism, and the mysterious gaze.

Along with Motley’s haunting octoroon series, a preponderance of photography, visual art, and narrative texts produced during the Harlem Renaissance featured the mulatta as either heroine or primary subject, reinforcing her role as the representative New Negro woman. While the New Negro man was called upon to be an inventor, innovator, and artist, the New Negro woman appeared in roles that emphasized service and self-sacrifice, such as teachers, nurses, and librarians. These popular images of the New Negro woman enforced a genteel standard of behavior, appearance, and vocation that restricted real women’s agency and artistic expression—and ran counter to the modernizing impulse of the era. On the other hand, the image of the mulatta was frequently collapsed into the stereotype of the Jezebel. Motley’s painting A Mulatress

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Archibald J. Motley, Jr.’s Paintings: Modern Art Shaped by Precision, Candor, and Soul

Posted in Articles, Arts, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2014-03-12 15:47Z by Steven

Archibald J. Motley, Jr.’s Paintings: Modern Art Shaped by Precision, Candor, and Soul

Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art & its Discontents

Edward M. Gómez

A week ago, 12 Years A Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the first time in the history of the Oscars that the top prize went to a film made by a black director. Recently, too, New York voters elected a white man who is married to a black woman; now the city’s “first family” vividly resembles the richly varied complexion of its multiracial, multiethnic population.

Against the backdrop of such belated examples of race-related “progress,” it is illuminating to flip through the pages of American cultural history and discover that almost a century ago, a black, classically trained modern artist, Archibald J. Motley, Jr., was using paint on canvas to address such nuanced subjects as the dignity of mixed-race persons and the skin-tone-based sensitivities that prevailed among his own people.

In Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, an exhibition on view at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, North Carolina, the life story and achievements of this modernist innovator are receiving some much-deserved attention. Organized by Duke art history professor Richard J. Powell, whose book, Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century (Thames and Hudson, 1997; reissued as Black Art: A Cultural History, 2002), has become a standard text in its field, the Nasher exhibition will remain on view through May 11 before embarking on a US tour that will end in New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art late next year.

Motley (1891–1981), who is still not widely known today, was born in New Orleans and moved with his parents to Chicago when he was an infant. His father worked as a Pullman railway-carriage porter. After declining a scholarship to study architecture at Chicago’s Armour Institute, Archibald was accepted at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (where, it is interesting to note, the Armour Institute’s president paid his first-year tuition fees). Motley, whose teachers included the realist painter George Bellows, went on to produce a technically inventive body of work that assimilated various stylistic developments of early-20th-century modern art…

…Powell’s implication is that Motley’s ability to view the world around him from simultaneously different vantage points and to embrace contradictions was somehow postmodernist avant la lettre. Powell pointed out, “Motley came from a part of the country, New Orleans, where mixed-race people were not uncommon. Comprehending someone whose racial identity was mixed wasn’t so hard for him but he was color-struck; he was interested in this subject and gravitated toward people like ‘the octoroon girl,’ whom he found in an A&P supermarket and who became one of his sitters.”

Powell noted that Motley was not just keenly aware of how a person’s skin color could influence his or her place in society — and the privileges or prejudices that accompany it — but like other artists and intellectuals associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s-1930s (or “New Negro Movement,” as it was known at the time), he was also interested in the multidimensional nature of black racial identity and the forms of social and cultural expression that were associated with it.

Some historians have described the light-skinned Motley, whose own ancestry was African, European and Native American, as someone who throughout his life felt unsettled about his own racial identity. As Powell sees it, the artist “instinctively understood that the issue of racial identity was complex” and therefore hard to codify, “because in his own case it was, too.” In other ways, Powell added, Motley’s life was not exactly simple or conventional, and he had to emotionally and psychologically process its vicissitudes…

Read the entire article here.

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Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist

Posted in Arts, Media Archive, United States on 2014-03-12 15:22Z by Steven

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist

Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
2001 Campus Drive
Durham, North Carolina 27705
On view 2014-01-30 through 2014-05-11


Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, the first retrospective of the American artist’s paintings in two decades, will originate at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University on January 30, 2014, starting a national tour.


Motley is one of the most significant yet least visible 20th-century artists, despite the broad appeal of his paintings. Many of his most important portraits and cultural scenes remain in private collections; few museums have had the opportunity to acquire his work. With a survey that spans 40 years, Archibald Motley introduces the artist’s canvases of riotous color to wider audiences and reveals his continued impact on art history.


Archibald Motley includes 42 works from each period of Motley’s lifelong career, from 1919 to 1960. Motley’s scenes of life in the African-American community, often in his native Chicago, depict a parallel universe of labor and leisure. His portraits are voyeuristic but also genealogical examinations of race, gender and sexuality. Motley does not shy away from folklore fantasies; he addresses slavery and racism head on. The exhibition also features his noteworthy canvases of Jazz Age Paris and 1950s Mexico. Significant works will be presented together for the first time.

“We are extremely proud to present this dazzling selection of paintings by Archibald Motley, a master colorist and radical interpreter of urban culture,” said Sarah Schroth, Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director of the Nasher Museum. “His work is as vibrant today as it was 70 years ago; with this groundbreaking exhibition, we are honored to introduce this important American artist to the general public and help Motley’s name enter the annals of art history.”


Archibald John Motley, Jr. (1891-1981), was born in New Orleans and lived and worked in the first half of the 20th century in a predominately white neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest side, a few miles from the city’s growing black community known as “Bronzeville.” In his work, Motley intensely examines this community, carefully constructing scenes that depict Chicago’s African American elites, but also the worlds of the recently disembarked migrants from the South and other characters commonly overlooked.

In 1929, Motley won a Guggenheim Fellowship that funded a year of study in France. His 1929 work Blues, a colorful, rhythm-inflected painting of Jazz Age Paris, has long provided a canonical picture of African American cultural expression during this period. Several other memorable canvases vividly capture the pulse and tempo of “la vie bohème.” Similar in spirit to his Chicago paintings, these Parisian canvases extended the geographical boundaries of the Harlem Renaissance, depicting an African diaspora in Montparnasse’s meandering streets and congested cabarets.

In the 1950s, Motley made several lengthy visits to Mexico, where he created vivid depictions of life and landscapes. He died in Chicago in 1981.


Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist opens at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and will travel to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas (June 14–September 7, 2014); the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (October 19, 2014–February 1, 2015); the Chicago Cultural Center (March 6–August 31, 2015) and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (Fall 2015).

For more information, click here.

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Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance

Posted in Books, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States, Women on 2009-09-25 23:13Z by Steven

Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance

Rutgers University Press
224 pages
b&w illustrations
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8135-3977-5
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8135-3976-8

Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, Professor of English
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Of all the images to arise from the Harlem Renaissance, the most thought-provoking were those of the mulatta. For some writers, artists, and filmmakers, these images provided an alternative to the stereotypes of black womanhood and a challenge to the color line. For others, they represented key aspects of modernity and race coding central to the New Negro Movement. Due to the mulatta’s frequent ability to pass for white, she represented a variety of contradictory meanings that often transcended racial, class, and gender boundaries.

Portraits of the New Negro Woman investigates the visual and literary images of black femininity that occurred between the two world wars. Cherene Sherrard-Johnson traces the origins and popularization of these new representations in the art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance and how they became an ambiguous symbol of racial uplift constraining African American womanhood in the early twentieth century.

In this engaging narrative, the author uses the writings of Nella Larsen and Jessie Fauset as well as the work of artists like Archibald Motley and William H. Johnson to illuminate the centrality of the mulatta by examining a variety of competing arguments about race in the Harlem Renaissance and beyond.

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Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, United States on 2009-08-19 00:46Z by Steven

Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance (review)

Volume 26, Number 1 (2009)
pages 182-184
E-ISSN: 1534-0643
Print ISSN: 0748-4321
DOI: 10.1353/leg.0.0069

Martha Jane Nadell, Associate Professor
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York

Cherene Sherrard-Johnson opens her provocative and intriguing book, Portraits of the New Negro Woman, with a reading of a painting by Harlem Renaissance artist Archibald Motley. One of Motley’s many portraits of mixed-race women in a 1928 solo exhibition, A Mulatress, drew a great deal of attention, even appearing on the front cover of the exhibition catalogue and in reviews of the show. Critics used a language of racial classification, rather than of painterly inquiry, to discuss Motley’s work; they described it and other works in terms of race and primitivism, rather than as meditations on line, color, or composition. Sherrard-Johnson uses the portrait and reactions to it to set up the central concern for her book: the aesthetically and culturally complex representations of the mulatta in the visual and literary work of the Harlem Renaissance. Images of mixed-race women—in novels, films, paintings, and illustrations—engage with racially inflected discourse, evident in interpretations of Motley’s portraits: Mulattas in Sherrard-Johnson’s visual and textual sources are simultaneously proper and primitive, domestic and desirable, civilized and sexual.  As such, they are most significantly also a central part of the Harlem Renaissance’s wrestling with race.

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