A 30-second online art project:

Peter Burr, Sunshine Monument

Learn more

Learn more at

Skip to main content

Archibald Motley, Gettin' Religion, 1948

From The Whitney's Collection: Selections from 1900 to 1965, Where We Are

Apr 28, 2017


Archibald Motley, Gettin' Religion, 1948


Davarian Baldwin: The entire piece is bathed in a kind of a midnight blue, and it gets at the full gamut of what I consider to be Black democratic possibility, from the sacred to the profane.

Narrator: Davarian Baldwin, the Paul E. Raether Professor of American Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, discusses Archibald Motley’s street scene, Gettin’ Religion, which is set in Chicago.

Motley had studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Here, he depicts a bustling scene in the city at night.  

Davarian Baldwin: It really gets at Chicago's streets as being those incubators for what could be considered to be hybrid cultural forms, like gospel music that came out of the mixture of blues sound with sacred lyrics. You could literally see a sound like that, a form of worship, coming out of this space, and I think that Motley is so magical in the way he captures that. But the same time, you see some caricature here.

The gentleman on the left side, on top of a platform that says, "Jesus saves," he has exaggerated red lips, and a bald, black head, and bright white eyes, and you're not quite sure if he's a minstrel figure, or Sambo figure, or what, or if Motley is offering a subtle critique on more sanctified, or spiritualist, or Pentecostal religious forms. You're not sure if he's actually a real person or a life-sized statue, and that's something that I think people miss is that, yes, Motley was a part of this era, this 1920s and '30s era of kind of visual realism, but he really was kind of a black surreal painter, somewhere between the steady march of documentation and what I consider to be the light speed of the dream.