Archibald J. Motley Jr., The Octoroon Girl, 1925

A painting of a woman sitting on a couch.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., The Octoroon Girl, 1925


Narrator: This young woman looks us right in the eye. This is the first clue Motley gives us about her personality. What others do you notice? Artists often use people’s hands to tell us about their mood or character—and this woman’s rest calmly in her lap, perfectly manicured, gently grasping an elegant pair of gloves. And what about the colors he’s used? Most of the painting is dark, but her collar, lips, and cheeks stand out in bold red. Everything about this woman suggests that she is confident in herself.

Motley’s portraits of African Americans generally express great dignity. Motley hoped that seeing themselves portrayed in art would help black people feel proud and confident in their identities. He also wanted to help white people see the beauty and accomplishments of African Americans, hoping this might dispel negative stereotypes and racism.

While this woman looks modern, the title Motley gave this painting is old-fashioned. It’s Octoroon Girl. “Octoroon” is an out-of-date term for a person who is one-eighth African American, and usually had somewhat lighter skin—nobody uses this term anymore. Motley once said that he wanted to paint every African-American skin tone there was, from dark to light—showing the beauty of all.



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