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Archibald John Motley Jr.

A man with a black mustache in a brown coat holds a palette with pain on it.
Also known as
Archibald J. Motley, Archibald John Motley
Date of birth
Date of death

Chicagoan Archibald Motley dedicated his career to depicting the lively world of the city’s “Black Belt,” a vibrant area in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville known for music and nightlife. From the 1920s through the 1940s, when African Americans were rarely depicted in art without negative connotations, Motley deliberately focused on them as the subjects of elegant portraits and dynamic genre paintings, swiftly garnering acclaim in the largely white art world. 

Motley attended the School of the Art Institute, and his affiliation with the school was of great value to him as a developing artist: “I used to stay at the Institute later than most of the students because I just couldn’t get out of there; I just loved the Art Institute. ” Later in his career, a visit to the museum’s galleries—where he saw Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks—would compel Motley to explore new ways of depicting artificial light in his own paintings

Shortly after Motley graduated, Chicago experienced some of the worst racial violence in its history during the 1919 race riots. These heightened tensions convinced Motley that he should use his art to influence perceptions of African Americans in a positive manner. 

A true Chicagoan at heart, Motley remarked, “Artists feel that they’re more readily recognized in Europe than they are here in America. Well, me, I’m just a funny kind I’m telling you. I decided and I made up my mind, I said, I’m going to stay here, I’m not going anywhere, I’m not going to Europe. They’re not going to chase me out of my own country. I’m an American. I’m proud of being an American. I don’t give a damn what color my skin is, I’m going to stay right here and I’m going to fight it out, and I’m going to make my name right here. I’m staying right here in wonderful America. And I love Chicago.”

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