Whitney Acquires Archibald Motley Masterwork

The Whitney Museum of American Art is pleased to announce the acquisition of Archibald Motley’s Gettin’ Religion (1948), the first work by the great American modernist to enter the Whitney’s collection. On view currently in the exhibition Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, which will close its highly successful run at the Museum on Sunday, January 17, Gettin’ Religion, one of the artist’s iconic Chicago street scenes, is among the Whitney’s most important acquisitions of recent years. Gettin’ Religion was in the artist’s possession at the time of his death in 1981 and has since remained with his family. The Whitney purchased the work directly from Motley’s heirs.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Gettin’ Religion, 1948. Oil on canvas, 40 × 48.375 inches (101.6 × 122.9 cm). (Formerly of the) Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Gettin’ Religion, 1948. Oil on canvas, 40 × 48.375 inches (101.6 × 122.9 cm). (Formerly of the) Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

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Archibald John Motley Jr. (1891–1981) was a bold and highly original modernist and one of the great visual chroniclers of twentieth-century American life. He was born in New Orleans, but his family moved to Chicago when he was quite young, and he later became one of the first black artists to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His training there was academic, rigorously focused on the human figure, and steeped in European tradition. Motley’s sophisticated understanding of art history is especially apparent in his sympathetic portraits, but it was a history that he challenged and advanced with his raucous depictions of everyday urban life.

Archibald John Motley Jr. (1891-1981)

Archibald John Motley Jr. (1891-1981)

Motley first came to prominence in the 1920s during the early days of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural flowering of African American art, music, and literature that extended beyond the New York neighborhood of its name to other cities, notably Chicago, where the artist spent most of his life.

For the last several years we have been working to bolster our holdings of works by key figures associated with the Harlem Renaissance and at the top of the list was bringing a major Motley painting into the collection,” noted Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s Alice Pratt Brown Director.

Motley had a long career and enjoyed recognition for his work early on—he was included in numerous exhibitions in the United States, including Contemporary Black Artists in America, shown at the Whitney in 1933—yet went through subsequent periods of struggle and obscurity. The current retrospective, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, which was organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and curated by noted art historian and Duke professor Richard J. Powell, has sought to reclaim Motley’s rightful place in American art history.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Self-Portrait (Myself at Work), 1933. Oil on canvas, 57.125 x 45.25 inches (145.1 x 114.9 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

A centerpiece of the critically-acclaimed exhibition at The Whitney, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist: Archibald J. Motley Jr., Self-Portrait (Myself at Work), 1933. Oil on canvas, 57.125 x 45.25 inches (145.1 x 114.9 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

After Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist closes, on January 17, the painting will soon go on view in The Whitney’s Collection on the seventh floor. The Whitney Museum has long championed artists such as Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh who captured the everyday life of the city in their works. We are thrilled that we can now hang this crucial acquisition, Gettin’ Religion, alongside such mainstays of the collection,” said Dana Miller, the Whitney’s Richard DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection. “We expect that within a very short period of time it will come to be regarded as one of the icons of the Whitney’s collection.” Continue reading