The simplified forms of Traylor’s artwork belie the complexity of his world, creativity, and inspiring bid for self-definition in a segregated culture. Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor situates Traylor as the only known artist enslaved at birth to make a significant body of drawn and painted work. His compelling imagery charts the crossroads of radically different worlds—rural and urban, black and white, old and new—and reveals how one man’s visual record of African American life gives larger meaning to the story of his nation.
The exhibition is organized by Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Museum’s collection includes seventeen works by Traylor, fourteen of which have been acquired since 2015. Between Worlds features 155 of Traylor’s most important paintings and drawings; in the accompanying monograph, Umberger examines over two hundred works to provide the most in-depth study of the artist to date. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the sole venue for this major retrospective.
This exhibition is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from ART MENTOR FOUNDATION LUCERNE, Elizabeth Broun, Faye and Robert Davidson, Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins, Josh Feldstein, Jocelin Hamblett, the Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. American Folk Art Fund, Just Folk/Marcy Carsey and Susan Baerwald, Lucas Kaempfer Foundation, Marianne and Sheldon B. Lubar, Margery and Edgar Masinter Exhibitions Fund, the Morton Neumann Family Foundation, Douglas O. Robson in honor of Margaret Z. Robson, Jeanne Ruddy and Victor Keen, Judy A. Saslow, and Kelly Williams and Andrew Forsyth.
Bill Traylor (ca. 1853–1949) is among the most important American artists of the twentieth century.
“A stunning retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.… an extraordinary artist, making magnetically beautiful, dramatic, and utterly original drawings.”
-Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker
“When [Traylor’s] work is gathered together, one sees the overwhelming ambition of it. Traylor wasn’t just making images, he was creating a world”
-Phillip Kennicott, The Washington Post
Bill Traylor, Truncated Blue Man with Pipe, ca. 1939–1942, poster paint and pencil on cardboard. Louis-Dreyfus Family Collection © 1994, Bill Traylor Family Trust. Photo: William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation Inc.
Bill Traylor, Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog), July 1939, pencil and colored pencil on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum; Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment © 1994, Bill Traylor Family Trust. Photo by Gene Young
Bill Traylor, Black Turkey, ca. 1939–1942, poster paint and pencil on cardboard. The Lucas Kaempfer Foundation © 1994, Bill Traylor Family Trust. Image courtesy the Betty Cuningham Gallery
Bill Traylor, Yellow Chicken, ca. 1939–1940, gouache and pencil on cardboard. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Charles and Eugenia Shannon © 1994, Bill Traylor Family Trust. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY
Bill Traylor, Blacksmith Shop, ca. 1939–1940, pencil on cardboard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Eugenia and Charles Shannon © 1994, Bill Traylor Family Trust. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY
Bill Traylor, Untitled (Basket, Man, and Owl), ca. 1939, colored pencil on cardboard. Collection of Victor F. Keen © 1994, Bill Traylor Family Trust. Image courtesy Bethany Mission Gallery, Philadelphia
Bill Traylor, Red Man, ca. 1939–1942, pencil and poster paint on cardboard. Collection of Jerry and Susan Lauren © 1994, Bill Traylor Family Trust. Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution
Bill Traylor, Untitled (Dog Fight with Writing), ca. 1939–1940, opaque watercolor and pencil on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum; Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment. Photo by Gene Young
Bill Traylor, Untitled, ca. 1939–1942, colored pencil on cardboard. Collection of Jan Petry and Angie Mills © 1994, Bill Traylor Family Trust. Photograph © John A. Faier
Bill Traylor, Rabbit, ca. 1940–1942, watercolor and graphite on cardboard. Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, Gift of Charles and Eugenia Shannon © 1994, Bill Traylor Family Trust.
Bill Traylor was born around April 1, 1853, on the Alabama plantation of John Getson Traylor in Dallas County, near the towns of Pleasant Hill and Benton. Traylor and his siblings were born enslaved, as their parents had been.