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Influenced by the Great Migration to the Harlem Renaissance to the Jazz Age, the 1920s were a vibrant and thrilling time in Chicago. With the flapper dress, the jazz dance style, and blues music all on the rise, artists of all different genres were experimenting with expressing the changing ways of their beloved city. From flapper girls to the lively community barbecue, here are ten works of art that give you a glimpse into what life was like in Chicago in the early 20th century.
Archibald Motley, Jr. lived in Chicago for most of his life and received his formal art training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As a result, many of his works reflect the time he spent in the city. Motley is considered both a Jazz Age Modernist and a major contributor to the Harlem Renaissance. Motley incorporated bright colors and lively crowds in his paintings to depict the beginning of a new life for many African Americans living in the United States during this era. His painting Black Belt was inspired by ‘The Stroll,’ which was the name given to a portion of Chicago’s State Street. The street was packed with lively African Americans both night and day.
Motley explored many different aspects of African-American culture, racism, and everyday life in the city. In addition, he was very aware of the politics of the time and used his works to call for a removal of racism from society. In his work Barbecue, Motley skews perspectives, depicts a wide range of skin hues, and strong patterns. He also ironically places enhanced lips on the man and young child at the front of the image. He uses these portrayals of blacks to engage his viewers and encourage them to look past the color of the skin in order to recognize the richness of the culture, people, and scene.
With trombones, dancing, and busy streets, Motley portrays the excitement and energy associated with Chicago in the ’20s through his painting Getting Religion. He does not have any one central subject; everyone is facing different directions, and instruments are playing both up and down. This layout draws the viewer’s eye all around the painting, rather than focusing on one section or aspect, and encourages the viewer to take in the entire scene. This inspires viewers to think about every person – regardless of color or appearance – and celebrate the culture of the entire city.
In Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, he illustrates the freedom and joy that came with many African Americans as they started a new life and crossed over into Chicago during the Great Migration. In his painting, there is a heavy tone, but a steady hope as everyone is pushing forward toward the light that appears on the other side of the door labeled ‘Chicago.’
The 126-foot-wide sculpture created by Lorado Taft sits in Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side neighborhood. The sculpture was inspired by the poem ‘Paradox of Time’ by Henry Austin Dobson. It depicts a hooded Father Time watching over 100 figures. The sculpture commemorates the first 100 years of peace between the United States and Great Britain. The water for the fountain started running in 1920, and the sculpture was dedicated to the city in 1922.
In another one of Archibald Motley, Jr.’s works of art, he illuminates a bustling nightclub with people dancing, drinking, and eating. Viewers can feel the energy and excitement in the room through the deep red light and the flailing arms of the woman dancing in the center. The individuals attending the club appear to have forgotten the stereotypes associated with race and are all dancing to jazz music and enjoying the night out.
Outside of The Chicago Board of Trade Building, the iconic building located in the Financial District, stands two statues representing Industry and Agriculture. The original building was torn down 1929, and these two classically styled goddess statues were protected and moved to the gardens of Arthur W. Cutten, a prestigious wheat and cotton speculator. The statues were not discovered again until 1978 and returned to the front of the building in 2005. These two statues represent a long history of Chicago’s booming economy, new hope, and the importance of trade in the city’s history.
The ’20s were a time of change and pushing boundaries, and Albert Gleizes portrays this idea beautifully in his piece Composition pour Jazz. Two figures appear to be playing instruments, and the bold shapes, vivid colors, and brush strokes create a certain type of music that cannot be heard but is felt. The abstract and modern image shows that the common barriers of the time were being broken and the rigid demands of society need no longer apply.
In the 1920s, the musical form influenced by European harmonies combined with African American blues rhythms came to life and became known as ‘jazz.’ The decade is now referred to as ‘The Jazz Age.’ Music, nightlife, and the jazz style of dancing became an influential and essential part of the era. The vivacious and daring way of life was not only being captured by painters but also by writers, and both came together to create the cover for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book. This cover accurately portrays the dancing, excitement, and joy that filled the era.
The ‘flapper girl’ is an iconic memory of the 1920s. These young Western women were known for their bobbed hair, short skirts, and flirtatious personalities. They listened to jazz music and defied social norms. These women stepped out of their traditional roles in the home and began speaking out on politics, ultimately winning the right for women to vote in the U.S. The flapper girl represents the beginning of significant changes for women and the feminist movement. Ellen Bernard Thompson Pyle accurately depicts this woman on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, with her eyes looking off in the distance at greater things to come.
By Samantha Looney
Samantha is a recent graduate from Brigham Young University and majored in English. When she’s not reading or writing, she spends her time painting, baking gluten-free treats, and planning her travels around the world.