- Archibald Motley and Racial Reinvention: The Old Negro in New Negro ArtBy Phoebe Wolfskill
- Archibald J. Motley, Jr.Our PickBy Amy M. Mooney
Important Art by Archibald J. Motley, Jr.
Motley's beloved grandmother Emily was the subject of several of his early portraits. Here she sits in slightly-turned profile in a simple chair à la Whistler's iconic portrait of his mother Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1871) with her hands clasped gently in her lap while she mends a dark green sock. She wears a red shawl over her thin shoulders, a brooch, and wire-rimmed glasses. The space she inhabits is a sitting room, complete with a table and patterned blue-and-white tablecloth; a lamp, bowl of fruit, books, candle, and second sock sit atop the table, and an old-fashioned portrait of a woman hanging in a heavy oval frame on the wall. The gleaming gold crucifix on the wall is a testament to her devout Catholicism. The mood is contemplative, still; it is almost like one could hear the sound of a clock ticking.
Motley's portraits are almost universally known for the artist's desire to portray his black sitters in a dignified, intelligent fashion. They are thoughtful and subtle, a far cry from the way Jim Crow America often - or mostly - depicted its black citizens. What gives the painting even more gravitas is the knowledge that Motley's grandmother was a former slave, and the painting on the wall is of her former mistress. It is telling that she is surrounded by the accouterments of a middle-class existence, and Motley paints them in the same exact, serene fashion of the Dutch masters he admired. Critic Steve Moyer writes, "[Emily] appears to be mending [the] past and living with it as she ages, her inner calm rising to the surface," and art critic Ariella Budick sees her as "[recapitulating] both the trajectory of her people and the multilayered fretwork of art history itself." That trajectory is traced all the way back to Africa, for Motley often talked of how his grandmother was a Pygmy from British East Africa who was sold into slavery. Some of Motley's family members pointed out that the socks on the table are in the shape of Africa. Thus, in this simple portrait Motley "weaves together centuries of history -family, national, and international."
For most people, Blues is an iconic Harlem Renaissance painting; though, Motley never lived in Harlem, and it in fact dates from his Paris days and is thus of a Parisian nightclub. The tight, busy interior scene is of a dance floor, with musicians, swaying couples, and tiny tables topped with cocktails pressed up against each other in a vibrant, swirling maelstrom of music and joie de vivre. Motley pays as much attention to the variances of skin color as he does to the glimmering gold of the trombone, the long string of pearls adorning a woman's neck, and the smooth marble tabletops. The figures are highly stylized and flattened, rendered in strong, curved lines. The man in the center wears a dark brown suit, and when combined with his dark skin and hair, is almost a patch of negative space around which the others whirl and move.
As art historian Dennis Raverty explains, the structure of Blues mirrors that of jazz music itself, with "rhythms interrupted, fragmented and improvised over a structured, repeating chord progression." The viewer's eye is in constant motion, and there is a slight sense of giddy disorientation. The painting, with its blending of realism and artifice, is like a visual soundtrack to the Jazz Age, emphasizing the crowded, fast-paced, and ebullient nature of modern urban life. And, significantly for Motley it is black urban life that he engages with; his reveling subjects have the freedom, money, and lust for life that their forbearers found more difficult to access. Blues, critic Holland Cotter suggests, "attempts to find visual correlatives for the sounds of black music and colloquial black speech."
One of Motley's most intimate canvases, Brown Girl After Bath utilizes the conventions of Dutch interior scenes as it depicts a rich, plum-hued drape pulled aside to reveal a nude young woman sitting on a small stool in front of her vanity, her form reflected in the three-paneled mirror. A slender vase of flowers and lamp with a golden toile shade decorate the vanity. She holds a small tin in her hand and has already put on her earrings and shoes. Motley is a master of color and light here, infusing the scene with a warm glow that lights up the woman's creamy brown skin, her glossy black hair, and the red textile upon which she sits.
As art critic Steve Moyer points out, perhaps the most "disarming and endearing" thing about the painting is that the woman is not looking at her own image but confidently returning the viewer's gaze - thus quietly and emphatically challenging conventions of women needing to be diffident and demure, and as art historian Dennis Raverty notes, "The peculiar mood of intimacy and psychological distance is created largely through the viewer's indirect gaze through the mirror and the discovery that his view of her may be from her bed." The sensuousness of this scene, then, is not exactly subtle, but neither is it prurient or reductive. Motley elevates this brown-skinned woman to the level of the great nudes in the canon of Western Art - Titian, Manet, Velazquez - and imbues her with dignity and autonomy.