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A work made of oil on canvas.
© Valerie Gerrard Browne / Chicago History Museum / Bridgeman Images

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  • A work made of oil on canvas.




Archibald John Motley Jr.
American, 1891–1981

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.

On View

American Art, Gallery 263


Archibald John Motley Jr.




United States




Oil on canvas


Signed and dated lower right: A. J. MOTLEY / 1943


91.4 × 121.3 cm (36 × 47 3/4 in.)

Credit Line

Restricted gift of 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

Reference Number



© Valerie Gerrard Browne / Chicago History Museum / Bridgeman Images

Extended information about this artwork

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