After hosting the Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition, we are inspired to explore its themes—including colonialism, diaspora, identity, and representation—within our own collection.
By the time he painted Portrait of My Grandmother in 1922, Archibald John Motley Jr. had already graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and had also shown his work there. In 1919, Motley’s painting of his mother, Mary Huff Motley, was the first portrait of a Black individual by a Black artist exhibited at the Art Institute. He then painted Emily Sims Motley in Portrait of My Grandmother three years later—and in a second portrait two years after that. Motley told his family members’ stories through portraiture, and the decisions he made in depicting Emily convey the significance and dignity of her lived experience.
The composition of Portrait of My Grandmother is spare. Emily does not sit in an ornate interior or undertake a leisurely pursuit, such as reading. We do not even see the chair on which she must be resting. The artist deliberately removed everything extraneous to ensure that we confront the sitter directly. We take in Emily’s greying hair, the hollows under her eyes, her wrinkled forehead and chin. A heart-shaped brooch with a red jewel is fastened just below her neck, a bright spot of color against the white of her blouse. Tied around her waist is a simple apron, upon which rest her extraordinary hands. Motley painted his grandmother’s hands slightly larger than life, almost as if they are pressed forward, closer to us. Her elongated and twisted fingers are graceful, yet they suggest painful arthritis.
Emily Sims Motley, 80 years old at the time of this portrait, had lived an incomprehensibly hard life. She was born enslaved and lived through the Civil War on a sugar plantation in Louisiana. Emily later moved north with her family, settling in Chicago. By 1922, she lived on the South Side of Chicago, together with four generations of her family, including the artist. She and her grandson shared the top floor: his art studio and her bedroom were adjacent.
By painting a portrait of his grandmother as he knew her, by representing the love and respect he felt for the family matriarch, Motley ensured that Emily Motley would be remembered. He recognized the importance of honoring her as both an influential figure in his own life and an individual whose story was untold on museum walls. Emily’s portrait testifies to her decades of work: as an enslaved woman, as a mother, as a grandmother, as a homemaker, as the keeper and provider of a legacy.
Motley later recalled that, as his grandmother aged and her physical abilities declined, he would carry her up the stairs to her bedroom at the end of each day. The work of this portrait is another manifestation of Motley’s care: the weight of Emily’s body translated, lovingly, onto canvas.