Archibald Motley, artist of African American life

Archibald Motley Jr.
Wed, 1891-10-07

On this date in 1891, Archibald J. Motley, Jr. was born. He was an African American artist.

He was born in New Orleans, to Archibald Motley, Sr., and Mary Huff. His family moved to Chicago, where his father worked as a Pullman Porter, and the family settled into a quiet neighborhood on the West Side. In his home he would listen to his father and A. Phillip Randolph discuss the organization of the Pullman Porter’s Union. He also watched his nephew Williard Motley struggle to write. The hard work and ambition that he witnessed as a child would carry him through his artistic career.

In 1924, Motley married his high school sweetheart, Edith Granzo, the daughter of German immigrants who disowned her when she married Motley. He and Edith had one child, Archibald "Archie" J. Motley III. Motley's only sister, Flossie, had a son, Willard, who became a writer of naturalistic novels during the 1940s and 1950s. Willard spent a lot of time with Motley's family and wrote at least parts of his novels at the Motley kitchen table. He emerged as a prominent artist when Henry Ossawa Tanner was the only widely recognized African-American artist. As one of the first to establish the social life of African-Americans in inner cities as "memorable subject matter" he portrayed the spirit of urban Black neighborhoods usually in twilight or an evening atmosphere.

Motley used the life that he knew best as subject matter, African-Americans as a dynamic people. The figures in Motley’s work were always hurrying, gesturing, or going someplace. Throughout his career, Motley showed interest in capturing natural light and producing artificial light, especially in night scenes. Motley was also distinguished from many of his contemporaries and successors, including Jacob Lawrence, by his rendering of his fascination with shades of skin color.

Even in the very populated street scenes, Motley presented a variety of skin tones rather than limiting his palette to a single color for African Americans. Archibald Motley died January 16, 1981, in Chicago.

The Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue,
Chicago, Illinois, 60603-6404

To be an Artist

Person / name: 

Motley, Archibald