First published: Summer 1996
Bill Traylor (1856-1947) is one of the most important twentieth-century artists that the United States has produced. Whatever his subject matter – human figures, animals, narratives, abstractions, or some combination of the above, his mastery of form is always outstanding. His use of opaque versus open areas and his deft use of patterning versus flat color is especially noteworthy. Traylor's use of space is intriguing, and his restrained use of color always compelling. That he was born a slave in the last century, self-taught, and began drawing with the crudest of tools in his eighties, makes the approximately 1800 drawings he produced over a period of about three years all the more remarkable.
Bill Traylor was born a slave on the George Hartwell Traylor plantation near Benton, Alabama, forty miles from Montgomery, in 1856. According to the 1900 census, his mother and father were both born in Alabama. He was nine when the American Civil War ended and, afterward, continued to live and work on the plantation. Traylor was twenty-five when the owner died and was succeeded by his son, Marion. Traylor is listed as assisting in a survey of the plantation grounds in 1888. He may have worked as a basket maker, too.