Archibald Motley is a famed painter of the Harlem Renaissance. Known for his dynamic paintings of dance scenes and his focus on the African-American community, Motley made a name for himself in the art world by reflecting the vibrancy of the Jazz Age. His varied paintings perfectly capture the essence of the era.
Motley is perhaps best known for his lively paintings of the Jazz Age scene. Paintings like the red-hued “Saturday Night” truly seems to capture the electric and energetic feel of the dance floor almost as well as a photograph would. “Gettin’ Religion” also manages to convey the effervescent continuation of the party from the dance floor to the streets. Its vivid blue captures the night perfectly, making it impossible to look away.
Though he had a penchant for people-filled paintings and vivacious settings, Motley also knew how to turn down the tempo. His portraits are quietly intense, with his subjects (which sometimes include Motley himself) appearing to know everything about you, with no one safe from their omniscient gaze. But it wasn’t just his portraits that depicted quiet scenes – Motley also painted moments of pensiveness or tranquility. “Between Acts” appears to be a calm before the storm of two women just about to perform. “Brown Girl After the Bath” is a moment of reflection – literally, as the girl sits in front of a mirror, not quite ready to go to bed or take on the day yet. A master of his craft, Motley carries you through each of these scenes with ease, never missing a beat with his nimble hands.
Much like Picasso, Motley also went through different painting periods. The exhibit breaks up his work into seven different sections, each expounding on a specific theme. His party paintings can be found in the “Nights in Bronzeville” section, while a selection of his works inspired by his time in Paris are in “Paris Blues”. “Between Acts” focuses on his more relaxed works, and his portraits also have a section of their own.
Though plenty of painters have range and a specific subject matter, Motley’s work stands out from the crowd. His immaculate use of color to convey emotion and light, as well as his choice to focus on African-American people and community place his work a step above the rest. You can see Motley’s work at the Whitney Museum from October 2, 2015 to January 17, 2016.