If you’ve read many books on the Harlem Renaissance, then invariably the works of painter Archibald John Motley Jr. have embellished the text and provided you with colorful images of that celebrated era of American history. And if you are not familiar with his work and you’re in New York City between now and Jan. 17, 2016, get on over to the newly designed and located Whitney Museum, where there is an engrossing retrospective of his artistic production.

Motley was born Oct. 7, 1891, in New Orleans, but his family moved to Chicago when he was very young. His father was a Pullman car porter who was temporarily felled by illness, making it necessary for young Motley to help support the family. But once his father recovered and returned to his job, Motley would accompany him on trains that took him across the country. It was during one of these trips, when he wandered too far from the colored section, that he encountered his first experience with racism.

After graduation from Englewood High School, he was offered a scholarship to attend school to become an architect, but he chose to concentrate on painting. Among his most important influences and mentors was John W. Norton.

It is not clear where he derived his early inclination to art, but nonetheless he was the first African-American to attend Chicago’s prestigious Art Institute, from which he graduated in 1918. While a student at the Art Institute, he witnessed the modernist uprising at the famous Armory Show but kept his own modernist desires under wraps for many years. At the school he gathered the academic background and the drawing and painting techniques that would be at the core of his creative ingenuity. He was particularly adept at depicting the human figure, stylistically influenced by the European tradition.

Even so, he had his own way of modifying and modernizing form and content, mainly in his brilliant array of paintings during the Harlem Renaissance era. “Blues,” painted in 1929, which captures dancers on a crowded floor, a cigarette dangling from the hand of one of the women, is exemplary of his work. The mixture of races, represented by his dazzling reds and burnished browns, are apparent, as are other elements of the period, particularly Motley’s interest in decor and musical instruments.

Motley was of light complexion, which may have been an incentive for his endeavor in skin color for many of his portraits. Hardly a crowd scene in his paintings was without a spectrum of varying colors for his men and women. This technique may have been another aspect of his search for his own identity within a gradient of browns, blacks, yellows and reds.

“They’re not all the same color,” Motley said of his depictions in an interview in 1978, three years before his death. “They’re not all Black, they’re not all—as they used to say years ago—high yellow; they’re not all Brown. I try to give each one of them character as individuals. And that’s hard to do when you have so many figures to do, putting them all together and still have them have their characteristics.”

With the current exhibit at the Whitney titled “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist,” the show accurately personifies his passionate involvement with the energy and exuberance of the era. From his perspective in nightclubs, ballrooms, concerts, salons or merely pulling the curtain to allow us to look behind the stage, Motley’s hues and images are enticing, telling stories that are endlessly fascinating.

Success came almost immediately for Motley, and three years after his marriage to Edith Granzo, his white high school sweetheart in 1924, his piece “Mending Socks” was voted the most popular painting at the Newark Museum. A year later, in 1928, he was the recipient of a Harmon Foundation award. Subsequently, he became the first Black artist to have a one-man exhibit in New York City. The show was phenomenally successful. He sold nearly all of the 26 paintings.

In 1929, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to study in France. He extended his yearlong stay by six months, providing him additional time to absorb his interest in the European Renaissance artists and their works. Of particular interest for him were the works of Rembrandt and Delacroix.

Back in the states, by 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression, Motley was employed by the Works Progress Administration. His assignment was to create scenes of African-American history in a series of murals throughout the city.

Motley took the passing of his wife in 1948 rather hard, and it apparently had a devastating impact on his artistic drive. Facing financial difficulties, Motley resorted to painting shower curtains for a company. During the early 1950s, he made several trips to Mexico and began painting life and landscapes there.

During the same interview in 1978 with the Smithsonian Institution, Motley summarized his artistic legacy and how his paintings were an attempt to eradicate the racism and discrimination that cramped and crippled American society.

“And that’s why I say that racism is the first thing that they have got to get out of their heads, forget about this damned racism, to hell with racism,” he said. “That means nothing to an artist. We’re all human beings. And the sooner that’s forgotten and the sooner that you can come back to yourself and do the things that you want to do.”

All you need to do is to gaze upon any of his paintings to see the extent to which Motley lived up to this mission.

If you can’t get to the Whitney before the Motley exhibit closes, there are a number of books, even a few that attempt to cover the entire history of American artists, that include some of his portraits, some of those delightful urban scenes where people of all colors are determined to have a good time.

Willard Motley, the painter’s nephew, carried on his uncle’s artistic quest in his writings, especially with his book “Knock on Any Door,” which was made into a motion picture.