Though he was offered a scholarship to study architecture, he turned it down in order to study art. He studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago during the 1910s, graduating in 1918. During his training, he preferred to step outside the school's focus on classical art. While he was a student, in 1913, other students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago rioted against the Armory Show, a collection of the best new modern art. After graduation, he kept his modern, jazz-influenced paintings secret for some years thereafter.
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 experienced success early in his career. In 1927, his piece "Mending Socks" was voted the most popular exhibit at the Newark Museum in New Jersey.
In 1928, he was awarded the Harmon Foundation Award and, on February 25, 1928, he was the first artist to make the front page of The New York Times" and the first African-American to have a one-man exhibit in New York City. He sold twenty-two out of the twenty-six exhibited paintings. The Times headline read, "One-Man Show of Art by Negro, First of Kind Here, Opens Today." The article announced the opening of Archibald J. Motley, Jr's show at the New Gallery on Madison Avenue. This was the first time in history that an artist had made the front page of 'The New York Times' and it was the second one-person show by an African-American artist (the first being Henry O. Tanner) in the United States. African scenes, voodoo dances, and African-Americans at leisure were themes presented by the artist.
In 1929, he won the Guggenheim Fellowship (after being denied when he previously applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1927). He studied in France for a year, and chose not to extend his fellowship another six months. While many contemporary artists looked back to Africa for inspiration, Motley was inspired by the great Renaissance masters available at the Louvre. He found in the artwork there a formal sophistication and maturity that could give depth to his own work, particularly in the Dutch painters and the genre images of Delacroix, Hals, and Rembrandt. Motley's portraits take the conventions of the Western tradition and update them—allowing for black bodies, specifically black female bodies, a space in a history that had traditionally excluded them.
He is most famous for his colorful chronicling of the African-American experience during the 1920s and 1930s in a modernist-realist style. He is considered one of the major contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, though unlike many other Harlem Renaissance artists, he never lived in Harlem. So, 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.
He 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 some place. 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. "...I try to give each one of them character as individuals. And that's hard to do when you have so many figures to do, putting them all together and still have them have their characteristics." (Motley 1978) It could be interpreted that through this differentiating, Motley is asking white viewers not to lump all African Americans into the same category or stereotype, but to get to know each of them as individuals before making any judgments. It is important to note, however, that it was not his community he was representing—he was among the affluent and elite black community of Chicago. He married a white woman and lived in a white neighborhood, and was not a part of that urban experience in the same way his subjects were.
During the 1930s, Motley was employed by the Federal Works Progress Administration to depict scenes from African-American history in a series of murals, some of which can be found at Nichols Middle School in Evanston, Illinois.
His career held steady through the 1940s as he kept painting and winning acclaim, but following the death of his wife in 1948, he experienced financial problems and was forced to take a job designing shower curtains for the Styletone Corporation in Chicago.
In the 1950s, he made several visits to Mexico to visit his novelist nephew, Willard Motley, which inspired a fresh series of work, paintings of the Mexican landscape with a new infusion of bright colors.
In his paintings of jazz culture, Motley often depicted Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, which offered a safe haven for blacks migrating from the South. Like many of his other works, Motley's cross-section of Bronzeville lacks a central narrative. For example, a brooding man with his hands in his pockets gives a stern look. Behind the bus, a man throws his arms up ecstatically. In the center, a man exchanges words with a partner, his arm up and head titled as if to show that he is making a point. By displaying a balance between specificity and generalization, he allows "the viewer to identify with the figures and the places of the artist's compositions."
Archibald Motley Jr. died January 16, 1981, in Chicago.
While Archibald Motley fell into a period of obscurity through the decades before his death, his art and vision began to be rediscovered shortly after. His work can be seen at The Art Institute of Chicago, The Chicago Historical Society and The Ackland Art Museum. Also, the Penguin Classics version of African-American author Nella Larsen's novel "Passing" – about 1920s New York and Chicago and how skin tone affects the fate of a mixed race woman – featured Motley's 1925 portrait "The Octoroon Girl" on the front cover.
Motley's only sister, Flossie, had a son, Willard, who became a writer of naturalistic novels during the 1940s and 1950s. Willard, raised essentially as his brother, spent a lot of time with Motley's family and wrote at least parts of his novels at the Motley kitchen table. Williard became an acclaimed writer known for his 1947 novel "Knock on Any Door."
Compiled from www.anothershadeofcolor.com, Wikipedia, and http://www.suite101.com/content/archibald-motley-a42163.