A SELECTION OF PAINTINGS OF WOMEN IN WHITE are displayed together in the American Galleries in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. Portraits by artists including Gilbert Stuart, Cecilia Beaux, Whistler, George Bellows, Winslow Homer, and John Singer Sargent are among the group. Stuart’s rendering of Catherine Brass Yates (Mrs. Richard Yates) dressed in white silk is one of 10 paintings originally on view when the National Gallery of Art opened in 1941.
Until recently, all of the women portrayed wearing white were white women of privilege. A treasured family portrait by Archibald Motley diversified the group. “Portrait of My Grandmother (Emily Motley)” went on view in 2016 under a loan arrangement with the artist’s family. Today, the Stuart painting hangs at the entrance to the gallery and the Motley portrait is installed at the exit.
The 1922 painting was Motley’s favorite. It portrays his paternal grandmother who was born enslaved. An elderly woman with a slight frame, his vision conveys her dignity, wisdom, and endurance. The portrait was featured in “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist,” and shortly after the landmark survey closed at the Whitney Museum of American Art, it went to the National Gallery of Art. In February, after nearly two years, the Washington, D.C., museum completed the acquisition of the portrait.
Nancy Anderson, curator and head of the department of American and British paintings, discussed the Motley portrait at a National Gallery of Art symposium on March 23.
“Because of the generosity of the Motley family, with whom the portrait had remained since it was completed in 1922, we were permitted to exhibit the painting in our galleries while we sought funding for the purchase,” Anderson said.
“We hung the painting among the newly installed images of women opposite Cecilia Beaux’s portrait of her cousin Sarah. As it turned out, the Beaux and Motley paintings were completed within months of one another in 1921 and 1922. Both are stunning demonstrations of the nuance available within a single color. It is, however, the painting by Motley that is the transformative work for, as you have undoubtedly noticed well before now, all of the remarkable portraits of women in white that I have shown are of women who are white. Emily Motley brings a very different life story to the conversation.”
“It is, however, the painting by Motley that is the transformative work for, as you have undoubtedly noticed well before now, all of the remarkable portraits of women in white that I have shown are of women who are white. Emily Motley brings a very different life story to the conversation.” — Curator Nancy Anderson
She went on to detail Motley’s family background. Emily Motley was born in the South in 1842. She gained her freedom after the Civil War, married and started a family. Years later, she moved North with her son to Chicago where he worked as a Pullman Porter. His son, the artist, graduated from the School of Art Institute of Chicago in 1919. Motley desired to make a career painting portraits, but struggled to secure commissions. To make ends meet, he took on odd jobs and worked with his father on the railroad.
Anderson said the canvas on which Motley painted “Portrait of My Grandmother” was cut from a laundry bag that he stole from a train that traveled between Chicago and Detroit called the Wolverine.
According to the curator, Emily Motley was 80 years old when her grandson painted her portrait and she lived many more years until the age of 102.
She also noted the museum’s commitment to further researching the subject’s life. “We now know the location of the plantation on which Emily Motley served as a house slave and the name of the family that set her free following the Civil War. Going forward we will pursue all the historical leads we can find and learn, I hope, much more about this extraordinary woman,” Anderson said.
Chicago-based Motley first came to prominence in the 1920s. When the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, Motley was chronicling its Midwest parallel, vibrant African American social and cultural scenes in Chicago’s streets, parlors, and nightclubs. His expressive oeuvre also includes dignified portraits of his family and Chicago’s working class and elite.
MOTLEY’S EXPRESSIVE OEUVRE includes vibrant social and cultural scenes of Chicago, Paris and Mexico and dignified portraits of his family and Chicago’s African American working class and elite.
Valerie Gerrard Brown is Motley’s daughter-in-law and caretaker of his legacy. She first met the artist 37 years ago, not long before he died. During that first and only encounter at his home, he told her “Portrait of My Grandmother” was his favorite painting. Browne is also partial to the work. In a 2016 phone interview, she told me she was drawn to the dignity of the image.
“She has seen so much of life at that point,” Browne said. “I love that painting. It’s simple and profound and beautiful.”
I asked Browne, whether she would be willing to part with “Portrait of My Grandmother,” given it was Motley’s favorite and hers, too. She had just arranged to loan the painting the the National Gallery of Art, which she described as “the nation’s museum,” a place “where millions of people can see, appreciate, and be inspired by it, free of charge.”
Brown said: “You have sensed how torn I feel about parting with this painting. Though I love it dearly, I also believe it belongs to the nation because there are so few, if any, beautiful, dignified, loving portraits of formerly enslaved women in museums. She is representative of so many whose history deserves to be told.” CT
TOP IMAGE: ARCHIBALD MOTLEY, “Portrait of My Grandmother (Emily Motley)” 1922 (oil on canvas). Dimensions – Overall: 38 1/4 × 23 3/4 inches; Framed: 43 5/8 × 29 1/2 × 2 inches. | Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Patrons’ Permanent Fund, Avalon Fund, and Motley Fund. 2018.2.1
“Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” was published to coincide with the exhibition organized by the Nasher Museum, which traveled to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Chicago Cultural Center; and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. An earlier volume, “The Art of Archibald J. Motley, Jr.,” accompanied the artist’s 1991 show at the Chicago Historical Society. “Archibald J. Motley Jr.” was published as a part of the David C. Driskell Series of African American Art. In addition, “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” a groundbreaking exhibition organized by David Driskell in 1976, featured Motley’s “Portrait of My Grandmother.”
National Gallery of Art Curator Nancy Anderson discusses the museum’s portraits of women in white, including the newly acquired “Portrait of My Grandmother” by Archibald Motley. | Video by National Gallery of Art
David C. Driskell shares his memories of Archibald Motley, talking with him by phone to secure paintings, including “Portrait of My Grandmother” for “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” which Driskell curated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, and later visiting with the artist in Chicago to purchase paintings for the Cosby Collection (although Driskell says “a private collector”). | Video by National Gallery of Art
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