Analysis of the Nightlife Painting: The Embodiment of African American Culture

Last Updated: 31 Jan 2023
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The Nightlife painting among many others can be found in the Art Institute of Chicago. Artist Archibald John Motley Jr. did this painting in 1943. This artwork was done as oil on canvas with the dimensions 91.4 x 121. 3 cm (36 x 47 ¾ in.) It is originated in the United States. Painter Archibald was known for creating portraits and paintings that reflected the African American experience of his time. His work was heavily influenced by jazz culture that embodied a lot of movement and richness of black culture.

Throughout his many paintings we can embrace the movement, drama, humor and good times. Nightlife is a perfect representation of the vibrancy of African American culture. This painting depicts a crowded cabaret in the South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville. There’s well dressed people sitting around the tables and the bar area as well as people dancing. This definitely looks like a club scene with liquor, music, lights and its clear to see that everyone is having a good time. Nightlife is one of Archibald’s most celebrated paintings.

One of the many details of this piece of art is the variety of warm colors used. By the title of the artwork we know what kind of situation is going on. The composition and colors vividly express a very lively scene. For example: the display of liquor is well lit and the burgundy tone in the background of the entire scene is intense and unnatural. Motleys techniques seem to be somewhat cinematic with all the staging and dramatic-lighting creating a movie-like scene. The center of the painting shows a couple dancing in traditional manner, the woman is wearing a bright orange dress while the gentleman is wearing a purple suit. There is a lot of repetition in color but its clear to see that all the people in the painting are black.

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The space was well used throughout the painting. The people dancing and lounging around are occupying the entire room. This is very much depicts a club-like stage with a bar, tables and dance floor. It’s very crowded and busy with people leaving very little negative space. To the right of the painting is another couple with drinks in their hands while the man holds a cigarette in the other hand. Directly behind them is a man sitting down alone at a round table with a lavender table cover smoking and drinking. Towards the middle and background are more couples dancing with their arms and legs swaying in motion.

Motley unified the painting through the repeated use of forms and shapes. The figures are tightly interconnected. The curved lines give the impression of a relaxed yet energized atmosphere. The bar is lit up with golden bulbs of light shining on the various shapes, colors and sizes of bottles. The figures are a bit disproportioned but still portrayed in very stylish manner. The techniques of movements and lines create a smooth exciting painting filled with emotion and fun. The people are somewhat shaped the same as well as the alcoholic bottles have similar shapes yet different sizes. There is a lot of emphasis on the excitement going on by the movement in and gestures throughout the work.

I was drawn to this particular painting because of the use of color and movement. Although the colors seem to overpower the painting there are minor details that give it a special touch. The clock at the top corner by the liquor display marks one-o clock in the morning that adds meaning and real life quality to the painting. When I look at the painting it’s easy to imagine hearing the music and the drunken chatter. I can also imagine the smell of the smoke of cigarettes mixed with the liquor and sweat of the dancing couples. This takes me to a warm summer night filled with rhythmic music and people enjoying their life. Motley displays numerous interactions between people in his painting illustrating the theme and honoring the title of the artwork.

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Analysis of the Nightlife Painting: The Embodiment of African American Culture. (2023, Jan 24). Retrieved from

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