Archibald J. Motley Jr., Mending Socks, 1924
Narrator: The woman in this painting is Emily Sims Motley, the artist’s grandmother. Portrait painters like Motley often use props and costumes to tell us about the people they’re picturing. What do you notice here? Motley has put in a lot of detail. Did you notice her pin? The little doll on her table? Motley has also painted her wrinkles and gray curls with loving care.
One of the most important details in this painting is the portrait that hangs on the wall. It’s a white woman, in a formal pose. Motley’s grandmother was born into slavery, and freed at the end of the Civil War—about sixty years before this painting was made. The portrait on her wall shows the daughter of the family who owned her. Take a moment to compare the two images. How are they different? Motley has left the portrait on the wall kind of blurry and indistinct, while his grandmother is detailed and lifelike. He seems to suggest that the world of slavery is a distant memory, and to emphasize the richness of the present.