RICHARD POWELL: The painting entitled Portrait of my Grandmother is one of the most amazing portraits in this group.
NARRATOR: Richard J. Powell is John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University. He curated the exhibition, which originated at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art.
RICHARD POWELL: It's a portrait of his paternal grandmother, Emily Sims Motley. She was born in Kentucky, under slavery.
NARRATOR: She and the rest of the Motley family came to Chicago by way of Louisiana, part of the Great Migration of African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South in search of better jobs. Her bedroom was next to Archibald Motley’s studio in his parents’ house.
RICHARD POWELL: Most of the painting is incredibly smooth and one can barely see the brushstrokes—but when you get to this brooch, it's built up with lots of oil paint, and it's gnarled, and it's black with this little tiny dot of red in it.
It has almost the shape that gives you the sense of a heart. But this is not your valentine’s heart, a nice pretty red one that you get on February 14. So one takes from that the obvious associations of expressivity, of what we would call the antithesis of all this smoothness in the work. There's a rough quality to this.
And again, given that we have this biography, this sense of this woman born a slave in 1842, who clearly as a black woman in the mid to late nineteenth century, up to the early twentieth century, has seen a lot, and has experienced perhaps just as much. Yet Motley in his elegant way says I'm going to not so much foreground this, I'm going to place this in the center of the action, but it's going to be surrounded by love. I'm going to surround this with forthrightness. I'm going to surround this with perseverance and survival.