About This Artwork

Archibald John Motley, Jr.
American, 1891–1981

Nightlife, 1943

Oil on canvas
91.4 x 121.3 cm (36 x 47 3/4 in.)
Signed and dated lower right: A. J. MOTLEY / 1943

Restricted gift of Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Field, Jack and Sandra Guthman, Ben W. Heineman, Ruth Horwich, Lewis and Susan Manilow, Beatrice C. Mayer, Charles A. Meyer, John D. Nichols, and Mr. and Mrs. E.B. Smith, Jr.; James W. Alsdorf Memorial Fund; Goodman Endowment, 1992.89

© Valerie Gerrard Browne / Chicago History Museum / Bridgeman Images

Chicago painter Archibald Motley represented the vibrancy of African American culture in his work, frequently portraying young, sophisticated city dwellers out on the town. Nightlife depicts a crowded cabaret in the South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville, with people seated around tables on the right and at a bar on the left. The clock reads one o’clock, yet the place is still hopping with drinkers and dancers. Two bartenders serve customers and restock the well-lit and plentiful display of liquor, and a number of couples dance furiously in the background to music provided by the jukebox at the right. The strange head atop the jukebox may be a peanut vending machine known as “Smilin’ Sam from Alabam’”; when a coin was inserted into the head and the tongue was pulled, the machine would dispense peanuts. Motley unified the composition through his use of repeated forms and a pervasive burgundy tone that bathes the entire scene in intense, unnatural light. (The artist had seen Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks at the Art Institute the year before and was intrigued by his use of artificial light.) The stylized figures are tightly interconnected; they are arranged along a sharp diagonal that compresses the space into a stagelike setting. The dynamic composition and heightened colors vividly express the liveliness of the scene, making Nightlife one of Motley’s most celebrated paintings.

— Entry, Essential Guide, 2013, p. 59.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

Chicago Historical Society, The Art of Archibald J. Motley, Jr., October 23, 1991-March 17, 1992, no. 51; traveled to New York, Studio Museum of Harlem, April 5-June 10, 1992; Atlanta, High Museum, June 29-September 25, 1992; Washington D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, October 10, 1992-January 3, 1993, cat. 51.

Art Institute of Chicago, Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine, November 10, 2013-January 27, 2014; traveled to Fort Worth, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, February 22-May 18, 2014, cat. 40.

Art Institute of Chicago, They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910-1950, March 3-June 3, 2013, cat. 33.

Durham, North Carolina, Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, January 30-June 1, 2014; traveled to Fort Worth, Amon Carter Museum of Art, June 14-September 7, 2014; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, October 19, 2014-February 1, 2015; Chicago Cultural Center, March 6-August 31, 2015; Whitney Museum of American Art, Fall 2015-Spring 2016 (Fort Worth only).

Publication History

African Americans in Art: Selections from The Art Institute of Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 24, 2, (1992), p. 177-179, fig. 11, p. 177.

Wayne Craven, “An Awakening,” American Art, 11, 2 (Summer, 1997), pp. 42-44.

Amy M. Mooney, “Representing Race: Disjunctures in the Work of Archibald J. Motley, Jr.,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 24, 2 (1999), pp. 162-179, fig. 11.

Andrea D. Barnwell and Kirsten P. Buick, “A Portfolio of Works by African American Artists Continuing the Dialogue: A Work in Progress,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 24, 2 (1999), pp. 185-186.

Amy Mooney, Archibald J. Motley Jr. (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2004), p. 88, pl. 40 p. 90.

Judith A. Barter et al., "American Modernism at the Art Institute of Chicago, From World War I to 1955," (Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, 2009), cat. 146.

Ownership History

Archibald J. Motley, Jr., 1943. Costella M. Gwin, by 1985; by descent to Deborah Gwin Hill, Chicago, 1985; sold to the Art Institute 1992.

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