Archibald John Motley Jr. created this portrait of his 80-year-old grandmother, Emily Sims Motley (1842–1929), in 1922. Born enslaved by the Kittredge family, Emily lived through the Civil War on a sugar plantation in Louisiana. In 1894, she and her family settled in Chicago, where her son—the artist’s father—worked as a Pullman porter on regional trains.
Archibald Motley graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1918. At the time he completed this painting, he lived on the South Side of Chicago with his parents, his sister and nephew, and his grandmother. In Portrait of My Grandmother, Emily wears a white apron over a simple blouse fastened with a heart-shaped brooch. She looks directly at the viewer (and at her grandson, as he was in the process of painting this portrait). With sympathetic honesty, Motley acknowledged his grandmother’s age, detailing the hollows under her eyes and her delicately wrinkled chin. Her hands, marked by age and manual labor, rest on her lap. Motley has taken special care to note Emily’s gold wedding ring.
Bolstered by a pared-down setting and simple backdrop, much of the composition is dominated by a single color, white. Motley expertly differentiates between varying shades: the slightly sheer sleeves of her blouse, the brighter white tie of her apron, and the touches of white in her hair. Behind Emily, her slender shadow is a quiet, ghostly presence against the soft white wall.
Motley’s art studio and his grandmother’s bedroom were on the top floor of the family home. At the end of each day, the artist lovingly carried his elderly grandmother up the stairs to her room. Motley’s portrait of the family matriarch is both truthful and dignified, commanding yet understated.