Lot 708
  • 708

Bill Traylor (1852/56-1949)

125,000 - 175,000 USD
365,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Bill Traylor (1852/56-1949)
  • Poster paint and pencil on paperboard
Inscribed verso, pencil (in Charles Shannon's hand): Charles Shannon


Charles and Eugenia Shannon, Montgomery, Alabama
Joe and Pat Wilkinson, Evanston, Illinois
Sotheby’s New York, "Bill Traylor Drawings from the Collection of Joe and Pat Wilkinson," December 3, 1997, lot 14


"Bill Traylor Drawings," Chicago Public Library Cultural Center, 1988
"American Radiance: Highlights of the Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum," de Menil Gallery at Groton School, Groton, Massachusetts, October 15 - December 15, 2002
"Jubilation/Rumination: Life, Real and Imagined," New York, American Folk Art Museum, January 17-September 2, 2012


American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum, p. 279, fig. 240

Catalogue Note

Bill Traylor's life spanned periods of enormous change in the southern United States. He lived through the Civil War, slavery, emancipation, economic depression, and segregation. He was in turn a sharecropper, a factory worker, and a homeless man. During his lifetime, unlike many self-taught artists, he experienced modest artistic recognition. He was a brilliant observer who recorded his memories of farm life in Alabama and his firsthand experience of the contemporary urban scene.

Traylor was born into slavery on a cotton plantation owned by William Hartwell Traylor, in the forested vicinity of Benton, Alabama. Following Emancipation, he continued to work on the plantation, though as a sharecropper rather than a slave. He married in 1891, and he and his wife, Lorisa, raised twenty children. At the age of eighty-two, he moved to Montgomery, where he became a familiar figure on the downtown streets. It is not known what prompted Traylor to begin drawing, but it is known that he produced approximately 1,500 works on paper over a period of only three years (c. 1939-1942). He worked with a straightedged stick and a pencil, and later with charcoal, crayon, and poster paint, on irregular scraps of cardboard. He shaped both simple and complex compositions in an abstract, spare style. In 1939, soon after he started to draw, a local artist named Charles Shannon took notice of Traylor's talent and began supplying him with materials.

Man with a Plow reveals the artist's ability to imbue his images with a sense of optimism. An electric-blue male figure stands behind common elements of a working farm—the mule and the plow. The man manages the large mule before him with delicately penciled reins. His determined attitude and sprightly gait are underscored by one leg flung forward with grace. The mule works cooperatively and vigorously, judging from the position of his forelegs, which are elevated and in motion. Traylor's innate understanding of this basic farm chore is clearly communicated in this sensitive reading. -L.K.