Archibald J. Motley Jr., one of the most celebrated artists of the Harlem Renaissance, is best known for his paintings of glamorous people doing glamorous things in glamorous nightclubs.
But his favorite subject of all was his grandma, who spent her entire youth as a slave.
Motley grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Chicago with his mother, a schoolteacher; his father, a Pullman porter; and his father’s mother, Emily, who was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1842.
In 1918, when he was 26, Motley became one of the first African Americans to graduate from the School at the Art Institute of Chicago. Four years later, he painted “Portrait of My Grandmother.”
“This was the artist’s favorite; that’s at least what he told me,” says Valerie Gerrard Browne, Motley’s daughter-in-law, in an audio clip posted by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. “And he loved his grandmother dearly.”
“It’s just straightforward and beautiful and loving. And the hands in it are work-worn, but as the artist told me … he thought in order to be a really fine artist you had to be able to do hands well, and so he took pride in the attention he gave to the hands. And you can see the veins in the hands.”
“I love the fact that she’s totally unpretentious. She has this beautiful, regal presence, despite the fact that she had quite humble origins. She had that inner strength and beauty. That shows through, I believe, in this painting.”
In 1924, Motley painted “Mending Socks,” in which is his grandmother is shown sewing amid some of her most cherished possessions: a red shawl, the family Bible, and a brooch bearing her daughter’s likeness.
In the background of the painting, a portrait of a member of the family that enslaved Emily Motley hangs on the wall. The family, about whom she spoke warmly, had given her the painting when she was freed.
Motley painted many other portraits over the years, but he was better known for his scene paintings, most of which portray the nightlife of African Americans in Chicago during the Jazz Age. In many of the scenes, a fashionable crowd enjoys live music in a nightclub.
In 2014, the Nasher Museum of Art organized a retrospective of Motley’s career that featured both his portrait and scene paintings. The exhibit eventually reached the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Chicago Cultural Center, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan.