One of the major artists of the Harlem Renaissance never actually lived in New York.
The painter Archibald Motley, Jr. called Chicago home for most of his life. That’s where, starting in the 1920s, he became inspired by a vibrant South Side nightlife that is largely forgotten today.
Many of these paintings are on display now in the exhibit Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist at the Chicago Cultural Center, but only through the end of August.
Motley was born in New Orleans in 1891. A few years later, his family moved to Chicago where his father worked as a Pullman porter. Motley had a middle class upbringing in Englewood and eventually attended the School of the Art Institute.
Professor Richard Powell of Duke University, the exhibit’s curator, said shortly after graduation Motley began a lucrative career painting portraits.
“African Americans who were business folk, ministers, school teachers, people who have some disposable income where they wanted their portraits done,” said Powell. “Archibald Motley filled that niche.”
But Motley soon began to paint not just his neighbors, but the neighborhoods themselves. Powell points to Motley’s depiction of a bustling Bronzeville block in Black Belt from 1934.
“‘Black Belt’ was a sociological term that folks at the University of Chicago used to describe that part of Chicago where black people lived,” Powell explained. “[Motley] transforms it because there’s nothing all that black and bleak about this painting.”
Black Belt’s vibrant street scene is crammed with men in dark suits and women in bright dresses. Curved black cars cruise under neon signs. According to Powell, Motley captures an energy that no photograph of that era could.
“I love how we get in the background, the sky and the stars in the sky. But rather than getting horizon lines, he just blends it. We move from that wonderful blue sky to the mauve of the sidewalk,” said Powell. “It’s a hint that this is not Realism 101. This is expressionism.”
Powell thinks it may have been influenced by his studies at the Art Institute, as well as what he saw in 1929 during a six-month stay in Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship.
“He looked at the work of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, the French artist who worked in Belle Époque Paris. The place that had all the can-cans and cabarets,” said Powell. “I think that Motley said ‘there’s something similar to that happening here in the South Side of Chicago.’”
Indeed, the Jazz Age in Chicago was in full swing at that time, filling nightclubs throughout the city.
In Motley’s painting Saturday Night (1935), the dominant color is pomegranate red. A jazz combo plays to a crowded room of people drinking, laughing and talking. Lampshades dot tables where patrons lounge with martinis and cigarettes. A woman in a frilly dress sways to the music as waiters in white uniforms rush by with drink trays.
Powell said Motley captures the essence of the mood through color and technique.
“It’s always this kind of energy between the figures and each other and how they interact with one another. Not in terms of a narrative but in terms of a composition,” Powell said.
Michael Allemana is a local musician and jazz historian. He says the music scene back then was something everyone wanted to experience. There were nightclubs and theaters on nearly every block in some parts of the black South Side.
“You didn’t have TV, and radio was just starting to be a force,” noted Allemana. “Wherever you lived, you could walk to a club. Chicago was a magnet because there were opportunities for musicians to play here. It must have been so vibrant. And that’s what I get out of [Motley’s] paintings.”
Places like the Platinum Lounge, Dreamland Cafe and Lincoln Gardens made up what was known as “The Stroll” — a nightlife district on State Street between 26th and 39th streets.
Those days are over, but there are still remnants of that era if you know where to look.
For instance, Meyers Ace Hardware store on E. 35th street. Way in the back, past aisles of light bulbs and power tools, the store is hiding a secret past.
Manager Dave Meyers takes Powell and I up thin wooden stairs to his makeshift office. His father moved his old hardware store to this location in the 1960s.
“Right now, we are on the bandstand. It went out six feet farther that way. In front of that was the stage.”
As Meyers opens the door, Powell’s eyes widen as he gazes at a large crimson-colored mural on the back wall.
“Oooh! Oh my goodness,” Powell exclaimed. “Oh wow!”
The mural shows a white jazz saxophonist playing opposite an exotic-looking creature pounding a drum.
The painting was part of the Sunset Cafe later known as the Grand Terrace.
“The club was known as a (black and) tan club,” said Meyers. “Because blacks and whites came here.”
Meyers showed us pictures of Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and others who performed here and other nearby haunts.
It’s not clear who painted the mural or when it went up. Powell thinks it might have been sometime in the 1940’s. But he says Motley definitely went to the Sunset Cafe.
Powell reflected on what it was like to peek into Motley’s past.
“I’m speechless. That was amazing,” said Powell. “You can get kind of a glimmer of maybe what was. Just a glimmer.”
Follow WBEZ reporter Yolanda Perdomo on Twitter @yolandanews