“Archibald Motley leaves us with a little narrative about his grandmother. Her bedroom was literally right next to his studio in that Inglewood townhouse or row house that they lived in. During the day she would smoke her pipe, and in the evenings, when it was time for her to go to bed, Archibald Motley would carry her up from the main level all the way up to the top floor, where his studio was and her bedroom was, and he documents that she says, “You’re such a sweet boy to do this for me.” What perhaps she also had embedded in that “sweet boy” description was his focus on her as a subject in art. And what we see in this painting is, again, direct. She is not looking at us askance or in a contrapposto pose. She’s looking directly dead on at us. She is dressed as an elderly woman would be dressed, in a linen blouse with an apron. This would speak to her domestic life, and this was something that she was very proud of with her family.
“I like to start with the hands because when you start with the hands, you see arthritis, you see gnarled knuckles. You really get the sense that this is a woman who worked and struggled and did lots of things manually throughout her life. And what I love about those hands is that, in most portraits, there’s a kind of a vanity sense of not wanting to show the rough side of someone’s demeanor. But in this case, Motley says, that is your identity, Grandma Emily. And so we see those hands ever so elegantly placed on her lap, and we really, really feel her story as a laborer. And then we move up from those hands to that face, and the face has lines, and gravity has kind of pulled her skin down on her face, and yet there’s a beauty in that. We’re in a moment when people love plastic surgery and want to transform themselves to something eternally youthful. But Motley understands that his grandmother’s face is beautiful and powerful precisely because it has endured and struggled and seen perhaps horrific things as an ex-slave that many of us can never, never conceive. And there’s beauty in the struggle, there’s beauty in the wrinkles, there’s beauty in all of that.
“The part of this portrait that, for me, encapsulates all of that is that brooch. When one sees this painting face to face, you notice that this brooch is impasto. In other words, the paint is raised on the surface of the canvas, and one really feels that brooch when you physically stand in front of it. And it’s black and gnarled and gritty, and you can really see how he has let the paint coagulate and stick on top of that brooch. And then right in the tiny bit of the middle of the brooch is this red dot. Now when I look at that, I’m not thinking of the cameos of genteel ladies. I’m thinking of some sort of jewelry that speaks to struggle, some sort of decoration, some sort of ornamentation, that speaks of a hard life, and that she wears with great, great pride—and even within that struggle and that anguish and that gnarledness of that brooch we see that one tiny speck of red, which for me, is blood. For me, it’s life. For me, it’s insistence, and in some ways it is the only dot of red and vibrancy in this otherwise gray, white painting, which perhaps has resonances with Whistler’s portrait of his mother many years earlier.”
View Dr. Powell’s full talk to learn more about Emily Sims Motley and her portrait.