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.
lower right: A.J.MOTLEY.JR / 1922
The artist [1891-1981], Chicago; by inheritance to his son, Archibald John (Archie) Motley, III [1934-2002], Chicago; joint owner from 1986 with his wife, Valerie Gerrard Browne [b. 1940]; full ownership 2002 to Valerie Gerrard Browne; joint owner from 2017 with her daughter, Mara Hope Gerrard Motley, M.D. [b. 1985], Chicago; purchased February 2018 by NGA.
Associated NamesBrowne, Valerie Gerrard
- Twenty-Seventh Annual Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity, Art Institute of Chicago, 1923, no. 189.
- Exhibition of Paintings by Archibald J. Motley, Jr., The New Gallery, New York, 1928.
- Archibald Motley, Jr., Tudor Gallery, Chicago Woman's Club, 1933.
- Two Centuries of Black American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas; Brooklyn Museum, 1976-1977, no. 80.
- Three Masters: Eldzier Cortor, Hughie Lee-Smith, Archibald John Motley, Jr., Kenkeleba Gallery, New York, 1988, no. 63.
- The Art of Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Chicago Historical Society; Studio Museum of Harlem, New York; High Museum/Georgia-Pacific Gallery, Atlanta; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1991-1993, no. 9, repro.
- Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Chicago Cultural Center; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2014-2016, no. 4, repro.