Progression of Art
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."
Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - Oil on Canvas
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."
Oil on Canvas - Collection of Mara Motley, MD and Valerie Gerrard Brown
Brown Girl After Bath
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.
Oil on Canvas - Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio
Motley is as lauded for his genre scenes as he is for his portraits, particularly those depicting the black neighborhoods of Chicago. In Black Belt, which refers to the commercial strip of the Bronzeville neighborhood, there are roughly two delineated sections. In the foreground, but taking up most of the picture plane, are black men and women smiling, sauntering, laughing, directing traffic, and tossing out newspapers. Motley creates balance through the vividly colored dresses of three female figures on the left, center, and right of the canvas; those dresses pop out amid the darker blues, blacks, and violets of the people and buildings. The background consists of a street intersection and several buildings, jazzily labeled as an inn, a drugstore, and a hotel. Cars drive in all directions, and figures in the background mimic those in the foreground with their lively attire and leisurely enjoyment of the city at night.
Motley's signature style is on full display here. His saturated colors, emphasis on flatness, and engagement with both natural and artificial light reinforce his subject of the modern urban milieu and its denizens, many of them newly arrived from Southern cities as part of the Great Migration. Though most of people in Black Belt seem to be comfortably socializing or doing their jobs, there is one central figure who may initially escape notice but who offers a quiet riposte. He is a heavyset man, his face turned down and set in an unreadable expression, his hands shoved into his pockets. He engages with no one as he moves through the jostling crowd, a picture of isolation and preoccupation. Many critics see him as an alter ego of Motley himself, especially as this figure pops up in numerous canvases; he is, like Motley, of his community but outside of it as well. Critic John Yau wonders if the demeanor of the man in Black Belt "indicate[s] that no one sees him, or that he doesn't want to be seen, or that he doesn't see, but instead perceives everything through his skin?" While Motley may have occupied a different social class than many African Americans in the early 20th century, he was still a keen observer of racial discrimination.
Oil on Canvas - Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia
In this mesmerizing night scene, an evangelical black preacher fervently shouts his message to a crowded street of people against a backdrop of a market, a house (modeled on Motley's own), and an apartment building. A towering streetlamp illuminates the children, musicians, dog-walkers, fashionable couples, and casually interested neighbors leaning on porches or out of windows. The whole scene is cast in shades of deep indigo, with highlights of red in the women's dresses and shoes, fluorescent white in the lamp, muted gold in the instruments, and the softly lit bronze of an arm or upturned face. The impression is one of movement, as people saunter (or hobble, as in the case of the old bearded man) in every direction.
Motley scholar Davarian Brown calls the artist "the painter laureate of the black modern cityscape," a label that especially works well in the context of this painting. However, Gettin' Religion contains an aspect of Motley's work that has long perplexed viewers - that some of his figures (in this case, the preacher) have exaggerated, stereotypical features like those from minstrel shows. The preacher here is a racial caricature with his bulging eyes and inflated red lips, his gestures larger-than-life as he looms above the crowd on his box labeled "Jesus Saves."
The presence of stereotypical, or caricatured, figures in Motley's work has concerned critics since the 1930s. With all of the talk of the "New Negro" and the role of African American artists, there was no set visual vocabulary for black artists portraying black life, and many artists like Motley sometimes relied on familiar, readable tropes that would be recognizable to larger audiences. It's also possible that Motley, as a black Catholic whose family had been in Chicago for several decades, was critiquing this Southern, Pentecostal-style of religion and perhaps even suggesting a class dimension was in play. There are other figures in the work whose identities are also ambiguous (is the lightly-clothed woman on the porch a mother or a madam? Is the couple in the foreground in love, or is this a prostitute and her john?), so perhaps Motley's work is ultimately, in Davarian Brown's words, "about playfulness - that blurry line between sin and salvation."
Oil on Canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do
This stunning work is nearly unprecedented for Motley both in terms of its subject matter and its style. The last work he painted and one that took almost a decade to complete, it is a terrifying and somber condemnation of race relations in America in the hundred years following the end of the Civil War. The main visual anchors of the work, which is a night scene primarily in scumbled brushstrokes of blue and black, are the large tree on the left side of the canvas and the gabled, crumbling Southern manse on the right. In the space between them as well as adorning the trees are the visages (or death-masks, as they were all assassinated) of men considered to have brought about racial progress - John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. - but they are rendered impotent by the various exemplars of racial tensions, such as a hooded Klansman, a white policeman, and a Confederate flag. Other figures and objects, sometimes inherently ominous and sometimes made so by juxtaposition, include a human skull, a devil, a broken church window, the three crosses of the Crucifixion, a rabid dog, a lynching victim, and the Statue of Liberty.
First One Hundred Years offers no hope and no mitigation of the bleak message that the road to racial harmony is one littered with violence, murder, hate, ignorance, and irony. It is nightmarish and surreal, especially when one discerns the spectral figure in the center of the canvas, his shirt blending into the blue of the twilight and his facial features obfuscated like one of Francis Bacon's screaming wraiths. Here Motley has abandoned the curved lines, bright colors, syncopated structure, and mostly naturalistic narrative focus of his earlier work, instead crafting a painting that can only be read as an allegory or a vision. Motley's portraits and genre scenes from his previous decades of work were never frivolous or superficial, but as critic Holland Cotter points out, "his work ends in profound political anger and in unambiguous identification with African-American history." Perhaps critic Paul Richard put it best by writing, "Motley used to laugh. In this last work he cries."
Oil on Canvas - Collection of Mara Motley, MD and Valerie Gerrard Brown