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The Revolutionary Portraits of Archibald Motley

On “The Octoroon Girl”

Feb 12, 2019

Featured artists

Archibald Motley

In this series, the curatorial team presents one work from the Meural art library we find essential. (See all installments.)

The Octoroon GirlArchibald Motley
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Archibald Motley was, in many ways, formally trained. He graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1918, and then, a decade later, spent a year studying in France. There he would fall in love with the Renaissance works he found at the Louvre. It’s the sort of path many artists went down. But what Motley did with this training—paint black life, a revolution in his day—would pave a new road for modern art.

Motley’s works seem to be either rife with symbols or practically devoid of them, yet each one captures the subtlety of black life in the 1920s and 30s. He was distinct in his ability to see the complexities of blackness—not just from other painters, but from those in the black community. Being mixed race, he understood the full spectrum of skin color. He spent the beginning of his career painting portraits, often choosing mixed race subjects. For him, these were another form of education, an immersive exploration of race dynamics of America. They were also a statement: no one can paint an image of “blacks in America,” because there’s no such thing. Under Motley’s eye, African Americans would not to be generalized.

Self-Portrait (Myself at Work)Archibald Motley
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In The Octoroon Girl (1925), we have a shining example of his nuance. Depicted is a woman who is one-eighth black (the meaning of the title). But the word itself has a long history, and two sides to it. Terms like “quadroon” and “octoroon” were used in the time of slavery to describe the fraction of someone’s blood that was black. In essence, it defined people by their ethnicity. In The Octoroon Girl, the subject is completely removed from the term’s original context—she is of a higher class, staring into the viewer with composed confidence. Her hues match the background, not necessarily blending into it but adding to it. Even the way she holds her gloves demonstrates a masterly command. It is a painting of progress, but still that term persists—Motley is asking his viewer (no matter their race) to question the antiquated labels we still apply, out loud or silently.

If there’s a great lesson of analyzing (and overanalyzing) art, it’s to never trust exactly what you’re seeing. We learn that we must know the backstory, the history, all of the signifiers, what came before, what came after. But in the work of Archibald Motley—a man who sought to repaint history—we’re somehow taught the opposite: trust only what you see.

Andrew Lipstein, Head of Editorial

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Archibald Motley: Featured Works

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