EXPO CHICAGO/2014 Highlight: "Jazz Singers," Archibald J. Motley Jr., 1934

Archibald J. Motley (1891–1981) was an African-American painter who is considered a major contributor to the Harlem Renaissance and New Negro Movements. These movements focused on the cultural shifts that took place after the abolition of slavery, resulting in an overt racial pride that promoted intellect and the production of literature, art and music. These new endorsements of the African American culture were to combat the pervading racism and stereotypes of the time.

Motley is known for his portraiture depicting undertones of racial pride. This painting came to The Center originally in 2008 to address age-related issues and the thin mechanical cracks in the paint layer. These were caused by the canvas reacting to changes in humidity and temperature. Rob Datum, one of our painting conservators, undertook a conservative and minimal treatment approach. He locally stabilized and flattened the cracks from the front using conservation adhesives using a minimally invasive approach.

The painting came back to us in 2014 after it had been on loan. The owner had noticed that the cracks were changing, becoming more severe and then relaxing over time. The reactive canvas was causing this damage, as well as weakening the previous treatments, thus putting the painting at risk of serious damage. When Amber Smith, one of our painting conservators, examined Jazz Singers, she monitored it and watched the canvas change as it adjusted to the temperature and humidity in our laboratory. She and the owner then decided that a lining would be the next step towards securing the entire paint layer.

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Amber began by surface cleaning the painting and then removing the varnish layer. The canvas was then removed from the stretcher and was lined to a prepared canvas using conservation adhesives. Once re-stretched, a layer of varnish was applied to saturate the paint layer before Amber began in-painting the cracks using paints that would be removable per conservation standards. The final step was to apply a varnish layer to integrate the surface gloss and protect the paint layer. This approach helped prevent further cracks and allowed us to ensure that the painting will not be lost due to slow deterioration.

Jazz Singers was featured in The Conservation Center's January 2014 edition of the monthly newsletter. The painting, in the collection of Western Illinois University Art Gallery, was part of the major exhibition A New Deal for Illinois.

Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Self-Portrait, c. 1920. Oil on canvas. 76.3 x 56 cm (30 1/8 x 22 1/8 in.) Signed upper left: A. J. MOTLEY JR. Through prior acquisitions of Friends of American Art Collection; through prior bequest of Marguerita S. Ritman. The Art Institute of Chicago.

Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Jazz Singers, 1934. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration, Commissioned through the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP).