BEFORE HE PAINTED hotly colored Jazz Age scenes set in Chicago and Paris, Archibald Motley Jr. (1891-1981), made a loving portrait of his paternal grandmother embedded with history and the nuances of her life experience. Emily Sims Motley (1842-1929) was born in Kentucky where she was formerly enslaved.

“This painting…is in some ways an outlier from those Jazz Age images. On the other hand, there’s a kind of a visual specificity and a psychological power that this portrait exudes that in many respects makes it very much a part of a jazz moment, particularly the 1920s,” Motley scholar Richard J. Powell says in a new video (below).

“Granted, she has this old 19th century life and experience behind her, but Archibald Motley, the artist, has captured this octogenarian with a kind of a power and physical insistence that doesn’t speak to being retired and being very close to death, she actually dies at the end of the 1920s, but speaks to her presence and her presence in his life…”

“Granted, she has this old 19th century life and experience behind her, but Archibald Motley, the artist, has captured this octogenarian with a kind of a power and physical insistence.” — Richard J. Powell

Powell’s discussion of “Portrait of My Grandmother” (1922) is part of a new video and podcast series in which professors consider a single work of art in the collection of the National Gallery of Art. “Reflections on the Collection: The Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professors at the National Gallery of Art” is produced by the museum’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA).

A visiting Safra Professor in spring 2019, Powell is a professor of art and art history at Duke University. He curated “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” (2014-16), the traveling exhibition organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. The show featured more than 40 paintings, including Motley’s portrait of his grandmother.

Shortly after the exhibition concluded at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Motley’s family loaned the portrait to the National Gallery of Art. The museum acquired the painting in 2018.

Valerie Gerrard Browne, the artist’s daughter-in-law, serves as caretaker of his legacy. In a 2016 interview with Culture Type, Browne said Motley told her “Portrait of My Grandmother” was his favorite painting. The portrait is currently on view in the museum’s West Building.


ARCHIBALD MOTLEY, “Portrait of My Grandmother (Emily Motley)” 1922 (oil on canvas). Dimensions – Overall: 38 1/4 × 23 3/4 inches; Framed: 43 5/8 × 29 1/2 × 2 inches. | Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Patrons’ Permanent Fund, Avalon Fund, and Motley Fund. 2018.2.1


BORN IN NEW ORLEANS, Motley had graduated recently from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1918) when he made the portrait. He was living at home on the South Side Chicago in a row house with his immediate family and his grandmother. His studio was on the top floor and her bedroom was right next to his studio.

Motley, who is recognized for his scenes of nightlife in clubs and parlors and crowded outdoor picnics and streetscapes, earlier painted portraits of people in the community, both the elite and working class, along with his relatives. He made two of his grandmother.

“Mending Socks” (1924) is in the collection of the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In this painting, Motley depicts his grandmother seated in profile. The image of her concentrating on her mending provides a bounty of information about the subject and her life via her activity, clothing, and the objects and interior that surround her.

By contrast, “Portrait of My Grandmother,” in which she gazes directly at the viewer, speaks volumes through subtle details. Powell closely evaluates the artist’s depiction of her hands and face, the broach affixed at the neckline of her blouse, and the indications of the shadow cast behind her on the wall.

“The face has lines and gravity has kind of pulled her skin down on her face and yet there’s a beauty in that,” Powell says. “Motley understands that his grandmother’s face is beautiful and powerful precisely because it has endured and struggled and seen perhaps horrific things as an ex-slave that many of us can never, never conceive. And there’s beauty in the struggle. There’s beaty in the wrinkles. There’s beauty in all of that.” CT


“Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” was published to coincide with the exhibition curated by Richard J. Powell and organized by the Nasher Museum, which traveled to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Chicago Cultural Center; and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. An earlier volume, “The Art of Archibald J. Motley, Jr.,” accompanied the artist’s 1991 show at the Chicago Historical Society. “Archibald J. Motley Jr.” was published as a part of the David C. Driskell Series of African American Art. In addition, “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” a groundbreaking exhibition organized by David Driskell in 1976, featured Motley’s “Portrait of My Grandmother” (1922).


VIDEO: Professor Richard J. Powell discusses “Portrait of My Grandmother” (1922) by Archibald Motley Jr., at the National Gallery of Art. His commentary is documented in video and audio. | Video by National Gallery of Art


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