Archibald John Motley, Junior (October 7, 1891 – January 16, 1981) was an American visual artist. He studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago during the 1910s, graduating in 1918. He is most famous for his colorful chronicling of the African-American experience during the 1920s and 1930s, and is considered one of the major contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, or the New Negro Movement, a time in which African-American art reached new heights not just in New York but across America—its local expression is referred to as the Chicago Black Renaissance.
The Renaissance marked a period of a flourishing and renewed black psyche. There was a newfound appreciation of black artistic and aesthetic culture. Consequently, many black artists felt a moral obligation to create works that would perpetuate a positive representation of black people. During this time, Alain Locke coined the idea of the “New Negro”, which was focused on creating progressive and uplifting images of blacks within society. The synthesis of black representation and visual culture drove the basis of Motley’s work as “a means of affirming racial respect and race pride.” His use of color and notable fixation on skin-tone, demonstrated his artistic portrayal of blackness as being multidimensional. Motley himself was of mixed race, and often felt unsettled about his own racial identity. Thus, his art often demonstrated the complexities and multifaceted nature of black culture and life.
Hale Aspacio Woodruff (August 26, 1900 – September 6, 1980) was an African-American artist known for his murals, paintings, and prints. Woodruff’s best-known work is the three-panel Amistad Mutiny murals (1938) that he did for the Slavery Library at Talladega College. The murals are entitled: The Revolt, The Court Scene, and Back to Africa, portraying events related to the 19th-century slave revolt on the Amistad. They depict events on the ship, the U.S. Supreme Court trial, and the Mende people’s repatriation to Africa.
Palmer C. Hayden (January 15, 1890 – February 18, 1973) was an American painter who depicted African-American life, landscapes, seascapes, and African influences. He sketched, painted in both oils and watercolors, and was a prolific artist of his era.
One of Hayden’s most prolific works came in 1937, when he created the iconic alleged narrative The Janitor Who Paints. This painting, labeled a protest painting à la The Execution of NIRA, was thought by critics to be a personal commentary on Hayden’s sentiments regarding the assorted, meagerly paid early jobs he had to take in order to survive that he was criticized for in the press. Despite his success and popularity not only in America, but also in Europe, Hayden was still regarded by some as an lowly janitor who had little to no artistic training and worth. In this painting, an African-American woman, man, and child are depicted in a crowded area which is made even more stifled by a canvas, cleaning supplies, and simple home decoration. All three are shown with thick, prominent lips, characteristic of caricatures of African people, and in the first draft, a bold portrait of Abraham Lincoln was hung on the wall. The title of the painting, as well as the contrast of cleaning supplies and art material, imply a balance, such as the one that existed in Hayden’s own life before he was recognized for his work. Inevitably, Hayden was scrutinized by both the black and white community as problematic for seemingly endorsing negative stereotypes in this painting as well.
Norman Wilfred Lewis (July 23, 1909 – August 27, 1979) was an American painter, scholar, and teacher. Lewis, who was African-American (of Bermudian descent), was associated with abstract expressionism, and used representational strategies to focus on black urban life and his community’s struggles.
One of his best known paintings, Migrating Birds (1954), won the Popular Prize at the Carnegie Museum’s 1955 Carnegie International Exhibition, the New York Herald-Tribune calling the painting “one of the most significant of all events of the 1955 art year.” His signature style in those decades included repetitive ideographic or hieroglyphic elements that allowed Lewis to incorporate narrative sequences into his paintings.
Hughie Lee-Smith (September 20, 1915 – February 23, 1999) was an American artist and teacher whose signature works were slightly surreal in mood, often featuring distant figures seen under vast skies in desolate urban settings.
His early work reflected social concerns inspired by the Great Depression of the 1930s and the work of Works Progress Administration artists of the period.
His paintings evidenced the influence of Cubism, Social realism, and Surrealism at the service of a personal expression that was poignant and enigmatic.
In 1963 Lee-Smith became an associate member of the National Academy of Design, then the second African-American to be elected to the Academy, after Henry Ossawa Tanner, and was made a full member four years later.