Blues and Mending Socks: Capturing the Harlem Renaissance

Holly Spain



Painting "…the Negro as I have seen him and as I feel him, in myself without adding or detracting, just being frankly honest." (Robinson 77) no other artist has captured African-American life of the 1920’s and 1930’s as well as Archibald J. Motley, Jr. Caught up in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, Motley painted during a period of cultural revolution and awakening for blacks in America. African-Americans began to develop a new identity for themselves, recognizing their equality while still remembering a past of racism and slavery.Influenced by the ideas of the time, Motley’s Blues captures the African-American’s life while his Mending Socks comments on racism that blacks experienced. Motley achieves his goal of bringing the world of the African-American to the viewer in both of these works by using color, facial expression, and symbolic placement.

Born in New Orleans on October 7, 1891, Archibald Motley Jr. became one of the greatest African-American artists of his time (Coleman 18). Motley grew up on Chicago’s South Side and enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1914, completing his studies in 1918, the starting point of the Harlem Renaissance (Panzer 564). An explosion of cultural pride and a movement away from the unenlightenment of the slavery, the Harlem Renaissance put black artists into the spotlight (Craven 42). Artists moved away from the popular way of depicting blacks as slaves and inferior people and painted the African-American in a light of equality and pride (Powell 3). Motley’s Blues brings to the viewer the newfound feelings of self-worth and the economic prosperity that blacks experienced.


Blues

Motley’s Blues presents the viewer with a simple celebration of African-American life. One of the first artists to present African-Americans in a positive light, Motley exemplifies in Blues the feelings of black equality and pride that emerged during the Harlem Renaissance (Coleman 43). The 1929 oil on canvas painting gives the audience a glimpse into the everyday life of the urban black living in 1920’s Chicago and represents the merging of Africa and America (Gates 2). Motley has painted a popular black jazz club, showing a crowded room full of energetic, happy people dancing as well as members of a band playing instruments.

The vivid reds and dark blacks Motley uses add to the feeling of celebration in the painting and helps him to portray the characters in a favorable light. Painted in what seems to be a ray of light, the central figures of the painting, a woman and a man dancing, draw the viewer’s eye into the painting. The men’s dark black suits seem to symbolize the black pride of the Harlem Renaissance and almost seem to say that they "wear" their ethnicity with self-confidence, dignity, and pride. The two dancing women in the painting wear red dresses. Red usually symbolizes youth, strength, and vitality. The color of their dresses possibly represents the growth in strength, status, happiness and equality of the black people.

In addition to the striking colors, facial expression continues to bring the audience a peek into the African-American’s lifestyle. The woman looks directly out from the painting with a very happy, smiling expression on her face. The man dancing with her looks down at her as in a very loving manner with a half smile on his face. The of the two central characters perhaps simply represent the average black person, and a reflection of the optimism felt during these times radiates through their expressions. The two other dancing figures to the right of the painting continue to express this feeling of good fortune and optimism. Motley has painted them kissing each other, a sign of their happiness, love, and lack of worries.

Behind the smiling, dancing couple, Motley has included a trombone. In addition to the great strides in African-American art and literature during the New Negro Movement, music also experienced change and revival
(Berg 172). Jazz transformed into the most popular form of music (English 807) and the placement of the trombone in the background represents the Jazz movement. Motley also includes a waiter in the background, which may symbolize the economic growth that occurred in the black community. After years of slavery and serving others, the African-American finally achieved enough status to receive service for themselves.

Despite the progression of the black people, as represented in Blues, racism and segregation still affected the African-American life. Motley experienced racism himself when he encountered problems with dealers who would not display his work because he painted black subjects (Robinson 76). Still fresh in the minds of the people, slavery and racism were also pervasive themes in art during the Harlem Renaissance as shown in Motley’s Mending Socks.


Mending Socks

When first looking at the oil on canvas painting, Mending Socks, it does appear to represent a fairly simple scene. Archibald J. Motley, Jr. has painted his grandmother sitting in her home mending her socks. However, upon closer inspection, a deeper meaning encoded in the work emerges. Motley’s Mending Socks calls to mind a vivid recollection of slavery as well as the racism and differences in lifestyle that exist between black and white people. Archibald J. Motley, Jr. uses the same techniques of color, facial expression and body language, and symbolic placement he incorporated into Blues to achieve his desired effect.

Contrasting light and dark colors bring to light the sharp differences between the two sides of the painting and the two characters, slave and mistress. The old woman wearing a white apron, sits in front of a light colored door. White usually symbolizes spirituality, goodness, and hope. This suggests the grandmother’s great faith in God and the goodness of her character. The whitish, pale door suggests the escape into a better life, or possibly the old woman’s eventual escape into heaven. At the same time, the fact that Motley painted the door closed also may symbolize the racism that the old woman and other black people still feel. Opposite from the grandmother, the mistress in the portrait wears a black dress, possibly signifying her malevolent character and actions. The left side of the painting, with its shadows and vibrant colors of the table and fruit, contrasts sharply with the light, neutral colors of the right side of the painting, causing the difference between the life of black and white people to stand out even greater.

Motley continues to emphasize the contrast between the two figures by using facial expression and body language. The old woman has deeply furrowed brows and a slumped and droopy posture suggesting that her hard life has worn her out. In contrast, the clear, young face of the mistress contrasts with the old, worn looking face of the grandmother, emphasizing her decrepit look. The mistress sits rigidly upright, and gazes strait out with a dominating, stern, unfeeling look that suggests her complete control and disregard of her slave’s life, while the grandmother looks down with sad, wrinkled eyes, a sign of submission

In addition to color and facial expressions, symbolic placement further illustrates and symbolizes the differences between the world of the black slave and that of her white mistress. Motley has divided the painting down the center with a thick gray stripe, painting the slave on the right hand side and the mistress on the left. Below the portrait of the mistress, Motley has painted a table with an elaborate blue tablecloth, a glinting silver bowl overflowing with fruit, two books, and a lamp. These objects symbolize the material wealth and easy life that the mistress probably experienced. The grandmother’s sock and tools she uses for mending placed to the left of the dividing line, under the portrait of the mistress, represents the service and work the old woman provided to her master as a slave. This also hints that even after the grandmother has obtained freedom, the experience of being a slave still affects her life, and that white people still have dominance and control over her in the form of racism and segregation.

The elaborate scene on the left contrasts sharply with the right-hand side of the painting, which shows only the old woman, a door, and a representation of Jesus on the cross. This seems to say that during the time of slavery the greatest possession of the old woman consists of simply her faith and trust in God in contrast to the great material wealth of her mistress. The placement of the crucifix behind the old woman seems to say that her faith has given her strength throughout her life.

Despite the sad overtones and symbols of the hardships of slavery included in his work, Motley suggests some hope for the future through the symbolic placement of the door and the portrait. The door, placed in the background behind the grandmother, may symbolize eventual escape from the influence of slavery. The placement of the portrait of the mistress half way off the canvas also may represent the eventual slipping away of white control and influence and the liberation of the African-American. The placement portrait half way off the canvas also suggests that half of the battle for freedom has already occurred. The abolishment of slavery has taken place, leaving the struggle to overcome racism as the last hurdle blocking the path to complete liberation.

Both Blues and Mending Socks reflect the feelings, memories, and ideas of the Harlem Renaissance through the artistic techniques of color, facial expression and placement. Blues brings the viewer into the world of the African-American so that they can experience their life style for themselves. Mending Socks, on the other hand, revives memories of slavery. The relationship between Motley’s grandmother and her mistress applies to the experiences of other slaves, representing the hardships and tribulations that resulted from slavery and the racism that people still felt. Motley causes viewers to identify with the people in both paintings. By making the viewer feel a part of the celebration in blues and sympathize with his grandmother, Motley achieves his goal in painting "…to make my people feel they are taking part and are a part of these paintings." (Powell 3).


Works Cited




Berg, Allison. " The ‘New Negro’: Recasting the Harlem Renaissance." College

Literature 25.3 (1998): 172-174+. Coleman, Floyd. "Down-home and Uptown: Archibald Motley, Jr. and the evolution of African-American Art." American Heritage 46 (1995): 18-25. Craven, Wayne. "An Awakening." American Art 11.2 (1994): 42-45+.

English, Daylanne K. "Selecting the Harlem Renaissance." Critical Inquiry 24 (1999):

807-809. Gates, Henry L. "Painting the People: Archibald J. Motley, Jr." Chicago Historical Society. 21 Feb. 1998 <http://chicagohistory.org> Panzer, Mary. "The Art of Archibald Motley, Jr." The Nation 254 (1992): 564-567.

Powell, Richard, J. Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance. Hayward Gallery. 24 Nov. 1997           <http://iniva.org/harlem/modern.html>.

Robinson, Jontyle. " The Art of Archibald Motley, Jr." American Artist 57.616 (1998): 76-81+.

 

Created for educational purposes only.
December 5, 1999 hspain@email.unc.edu
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