Archibald John Motley, Jr.

Gettin' Religion

On view
Floor 7



Oil on linen

Overall: 32 × 39 7/16in. (81.3 × 100.2 cm)

Accession number

Credit line
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, Josephine N. Hopper Bequest, by exchange

Rights and reproductions
© Valerie Gerrard Browne


Visual Description

Gettin' Religion by Archibald Motley, Jr. is a horizontal oil painting on canvas, measuring about 3 feet wide by 2.5 feet high. The work has a vividly blue, dark palette and depicts a crowded, lively night scene with many figures of varied skin tones walking, standing, proselytizing, playing music, and conversing. The appearance of the paint on the surface is smooth and glossy.

In the background of the work, three buildings appear in front of a starry night sky: a market storefront, with meat hanging in the window; a home with stairs leading up to a front porch, where a woman and a child watch the activity; and an apartment building with many residents peering out the windows. The entire scene is illuminated by starlight and a bluish light emanating from a streetlamp, casting a distinctive glow.

In the foreground is a group of Black performers playing brass instruments and tambourines, surrounded by people of great variety walking, spectating, and speaking with each other. A smartly dressed couple in the bottom left stare into each other’s eyes. A child stands with their back to the viewer and hands in pocket. A solitary man in profile smokes a cigarette in the near foreground. A woman with long wavy hair, wearing a green dress and strikingly red stilettos walks a small white dog past a stooped, elderly, bearded man with a cane in the bottom right, among other figures. The crowd is interspersed and figures overlap, resulting in a dynamic, vibrant depiction of a night scene.

A central focal point of the foreground scene is a tall Black man, so tall as to be out of scale with the rest of the figures, who has exaggerated features including unnaturally red lips, and stands on a pedestal that reads “Jesus Saves.” This caricature draws on the racist stereotype of the minstrel, and Motley gave no straightforward reason for its inclusion.  The artist’s ancestry included Black, Indigenous, and European heritage, and he grappled with his racial identity throughout his life. He may have chosen to portray the stereotype to skewer assumptions about urban Black life and communities, by creating a contrast with  the varied, more realistic, figures surrounding the preacher.

A participant in the Great Migration of many Black Americans from the South to urban centers in the North, Motley’s family moved from New Orleans to Chicago when he was a child. He was especially intrigued by the jazz scene, and Black neighborhoods like Bronzeville in Chicago, which is the inspiration for this scene and many of his other works. In Getting’ Religion, Motley has captured a portrait of what scholar Davarian L. Baldwin has called “the full gamut of what I consider to be Black democratic possibility, from the sacred to the profane.”