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Work of the Week: Nightlife

Motley, Nightlife

I've been looking at this painting a lot lately. Partially because we've been using it to advertise tonight's After Dark event—where you can expect almost everything you see here, minus the smoking indoors—but also because it's prominently featured in the recently opened They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910–1950. This exhibition showcases work created during the waves of immigration and migration that took place in Chicago in the first half of the 20th century. The artists included are predominantly African American artists from the South or foreign-born European artists and often focus on racial and cultural identity.

In this painting from the museum's collection, Archibald Motley depicts a lively nightclub scene in vibrant shades of magenta and purple. The clock over the bar reads nearly 1:00 a.m. and the party shows no signs of abating, with groups of people drinking and dancing. Some are lost in their own world, while others gesture at and make eye contact with each other across the space. Typical bar behavior even today. Motley was inspired by and frequently painted images of nightlife in Bronzeville, a neighborhood that attracted many African American migrants. As exhibition curator Sarah Kelly Oehler noted in the catalogue, "His keen depiction of of social life would have resonated with migrants seeking to understand the new mannerisms and etiquette of the big city, as his open-ended narratives allowed viewers to imagine themselves in such scenarios."

Image Credit: Archibald Motley. Nightlife, 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.