Wednesday, April 25, 2007

I Love this Old Woman

Initially, one might overlook the social significance of an elderly African-American woman mending socks, but the social relevance confined within Mending Socks by Archibald J. Motley, Jr. appears utterly clear. Motley’s 1924 painting portrays Southern black society as cultured and affluent, two adjectives frequently absent in many other period portrayals of African-American life. Motley, himself an African-American, wanted to portray his positive view of African-American, one that was often overlooked in American society when paralleled with the general stereotypes found in “black-face” movies as well as specific stereotypes such as the “mammy” character that is seen in “Imitation of Life.” Through a certain painting style as well as including certain symbols, Motley was able to express his views about African-Americans.

As one examines the painting, one is immediately drawn to the woman. She is the centerpiece of the work. Her defining characteristic is her age. The crease lines in her forehead, the bags under her eyes as well as the loose skin under her chin tell of a long and hard life. Naturally, elderly people will have these characteristics, and whether she had a hard life as a slave or not is not certain. Regardless, life for many people, White or Black, during this time was rough and her skin qualities show it.

The second thing one notices is that she is dressed well. Typical of Motley’s style, the woman appears to be financially stable and could probably be considered a middle class citizen. Her shiny blouse indicates a silky material, which would lead one to believe that she is at least financially stable. Never do we consider the woman poor due to her clothing.

As one’s eyes scan the painting, one notices certain symbols that clearly indicate the woman’s sophistication and class. First, the cloth that is covering the table appears to be of a thick and durable material. Similar to the dress, this fabric indicates the woman’s financially stability. One would not expect to find the same material covering a farm-hand’s table. In fact, someone of a considerably lower societal status may have a poorly sewn cotton cloth or probably nothing at all. The tablecloth’s color as well as the intricate designs illustrate that time was a factor in creating the cloth. This was not some cloth that was hastily made, but a cloth made with an artistic purpose.

On the table, we see a sterling container with different kinds of fruits. Bananas are rarely grown in America, and the bananas in the container tell us that the woman is able to afford outside luxuries. People of a lower class would probably not have the extra money to spend on imported bananas, let a lone a nice sterling container. The large grapes and peaches also look exceptionally nice, and this illustrates that this woman is a woman of class. She is not someone who relies on her garden outside to provide her food.

Next to the fruit are big books, an indicator that this woman is educated. Perhaps a sign of her true education, or perhaps a symbol of her higher status (you can be sure that big books don’t necessarily equate to a big intellect), the books place her in a part of society that valued education. Also, the fact that the woman has time to read the two huge books indicates that she has a lot of spare time, a luxury that many poorer people did not have during this time. The daily routines of poorer people during this period consisted of surviving, whether on a farm, in a factory or in the streets. This clearly did not leave much time for reading big books. The books also illustrate the woman’s achievement within the Black community, as equal education (access) and equal rights were not often offered to the Black community during this time.

To woman’s left, we see a crucifix. This is an obvious symbol of her Christian faith, which was and continues to be a staple of Black society in America. The cross may be just that, a symbol directly referencing her piety, or it could be a reminder of what Jesus promised his followers: a pain-free life in Heaven, regardless of the trials faced on earth. Not knowing whether this woman specifically faced rough times during her life, we can be sure that the majority of African-Americans during her time did. This crucifix could represent an overarching sense of hope within the Black community, maybe for a hopeful future in the afterlife, maybe for a hopeful future in America. Either way, the crucifix is an important part of the woman’s life, considering its proximity to her sewing area. Whether reading books, or sewing socks from the large pile of fabric, we can be certain that the elderly woman spends a lot of time at this table. She even has food on the table in case she gets hungry.

One odd marker of this piece is the portrait hanging in the top left part of the painting. Initially, it’s hard to tell who this portrait may represent, but Motley frequently depicted woman of mixed-ethnicity, as he was a Creole himself. This portrait may be meant to parallel the woman and to remind the viewer of the mixed heritage of many of the people living in the Louisiana area. Another suggestion is that the portrait represents someone who the woman worked for when she was younger. For some reason, the woman may accept her past as a part of her life and regardless of the pain she probably went through as a slave, she may not want to forget about that part of her life, but learn from it and move on. The portrait would surely be a reminder of her past in this sense.

I’m not entirely sure of any claims that could be argued to refute what I have said about the intention of the artist to illustrate Black society. All symbols as well as the appearance of the woman seem to indicate a life of struggle, tradition and hope. The only argument, in my opinion, that could be waged against my interpretation is in the historical context of the woman’s life. Other than that, the symbols are so blatant, that I am unable to conjure up a counter argument. This piece does not seem to be one created for controversial and abstract interpretation.

I believe that Motley did an exceptional job of representing his view of Black culture in the painting. So often did stereotypes permeate throughout artistic expressions of Blacks by Whites that certain images such as the “mammy” stereotype became ingrained in the minds of average White citizens. By portraying this woman as classy, educated, religious and humble, Motley was showing Whites that their cultural values and religious traditions are very similar to the Blacks against whom many discriminated.

"Mending Socks." Ackland Museum website. Accessed from

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