Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist

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This audio guide highlights selected works in Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist. Curators Richard J. Powell, Carter Foster, and others provide additional commentary.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, c. 1963–72

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CARTER FOSTER: This is a late painting by Motley, it’s very much toward the end of his life.

NARRATOR: Carter Foster.

CARTER FOSTER: But he worked on this canvas for a long time, almost ten years. And it’s the most overtly political statement that he made as an artist, really. It’s not that politics doesn’t enter into his other works, but here he’s very clearly making a statement about race relations in America. And you see these disembodied heads of these three great figures in American history, Martin Luther King, JFK—John F. Kennedy, Jr.—and Abraham Lincoln, all of whom were assassinated and were in some sense martyrs for the advancement of American history. So that’s very striking.

Also striking is the lynched figure that you see hanging from a tree, right next to the Statue of Liberty. So he’s come up with all of these allegories. It’s an interesting approach to history. It’s not really an organized narrative, it’s—everything sort of functions as a symbol. I think it’s very striking the way he uses this sort of overall blue tonality, which was sort of a signature for him—if you notice his other paintings have this blue tonality that he seemed to like. And he loved artificial light effects. But it’s especially powerful here for the way it offsets the red, and the red really becomes a potent visual contrast to the blue. And with the red you see blood on the right, you see the devil, you have the confederate flag, you see a Ku Klux Klan member with a red insignia on their outfit. You see fire, so the red really pops out, and is forceful in the way it’s making a statement about these events.

NARRATOR: This is the last stop on our tour. Thank you for joining me today, and please enjoy the rest of your visit. 

CARTER FOSTER: This is a late painting by Motley, it’s very much toward the end of his life.

NARRATOR: Carter Foster.

CARTER FOSTER: But he worked on this canvas for a long time, almost ten years. And it’s the most overtly political statement that he made as an artist, really. It’s not that politics doesn’t enter into his other works, but here he’s very clearly making a statement about race relations in America. And you see these disembodied heads of these three great figures in American history, Martin Luther King, JFK—John F. Kennedy, Jr.—and Abraham Lincoln, all of whom were assassinated and were in some sense martyrs for the advancement of American history. So that’s very striking.

Also striking is the lynched figure that you see hanging from a tree, right next to the Statue of Liberty. So he’s come up with all of these allegories. It’s an interesting approach to history. It’s not really an organized narrative, it’s—everything sort of functions as a symbol. I think it’s very striking the way he uses this sort of overall blue tonality, which was sort of a signature for him—if you notice his other paintings have this blue tonality that he seemed to like. And he loved artificial light effects. But it’s especially powerful here for the way it offsets the red, and the red really becomes a potent visual contrast to the blue. And with the red you see blood on the right, you see the devil, you have the confederate flag, you see a Ku Klux Klan member with a red insignia on their outfit. You see fire, so the red really pops out, and is forceful in the way it’s making a statement about these events.

NARRATOR: This is the last stop on our tour. Thank you for joining me today, and please enjoy the rest of your visit. 


Archibald J. Motley Jr., The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, c. 1963–72. Oil on canvas, 48 7/8 x 40 3/4 in. (124 x 103.5 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy the Chicago History Museum. © Valerie Gerrard Browne