About this artwork
Chicago painter Archibald Motley represented the vibrancy of African American culture, frequently portraying young, sophisticated city dwellers out on the town. Nightlife depicts a crowded cabaret in the South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville, with people seated around tables and at the bar. The clock reads one o’clock, and the place is still hopping with drinkers and dancers. Two bartenders serve customers and restock the well-lit display of liquor, and couples dance furiously in the background to music provided by the jukebox at the right. The strange head atop the jukebox may be a peanut-vending machine known as “Smilin’ Sam from Alabam’”; when a coin was inserted into the head and the tongue was pulled, the machine would dispense peanuts. Motley unified the composition through his use of repeated forms and a pervasive burgundy tone that bathes the entire scene in intense, unnatural light. (The artist had seen Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks at the Art Institute the year before and was intrigued by his use of artificial light.) The stylized figures are tightly interconnected; they are arranged along a sharp diagonal that compresses the space into a stagelike setting. The dynamic composition and heightened colors vividly express the liveliness of the scene, making Nightlife one of Motley’s most celebrated paintings.
- Archibald John Motley Jr.
- Oil on canvas
- Signed and dated lower right: A. J. MOTLEY / 1943
- 91.4 × 121.3 cm (36 × 47 3/4 in.)
- Purchased with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Field, Jack and Sandra Guthman, Ben W. Heineman, Ruth Horwich, Lewis and Susan Manilow, Beatrice C. Mayer, Charles A. Meyer, John D. Nichols, and Mr. and Mrs. E.B. Smith Jr.; James W. Alsdorf Memorial Fund; Goodman Endowment
- © Valerie Gerrard Browne / Chicago History Museum / Bridgeman Images