Drawings from the High Museum of Art
The consumption of spirits is a theme that often appears in Traylor’s work. The drinkers are typically lively and boisterous, their gestures conveying uninhibited revelry. This image is enlivened by the ballooning contour of the subject’s belly and the prancing movement of his long legs and tiny feet. The bouncy repetition of negative triangular spaces, the gestures—the figure’s raised hand bringing the bottle to his mouth, his swinging arm, and his prancing legs—and the spontaneous, mottled appearance of the paint application visually convey the man’s happy abandon.
The nature of the interactions between Traylor’s figures is often open to interpretation. In this drawing, for example, the couple could be either brawling or dancing. The repeated triangular shapes formed by their limbs unify the composition and lead the eye to see them as a single unit, forever locked together in their encounter.
One hallmark of Traylor’s drawings is their simplicity. He began with basic geometric shapes—triangles, rectangles, and semi-circles—which he then contoured and filled with pencil shading or paint. His compositional skill is evident in the way he placed figures on the field to suggest space and atmosphere. Here the man is positioned slightly higher on the sheet than the woman, suggesting that he is passing her on the street.
In this highly developed drawing, Traylor used simple gestures to provide both horse and rider with specific personalities: the horse’s swinging tail conveys a sense of frisky pride, while the man’s stiff legs and jutting elbows suggest the rigidity of propriety or, perhaps, inexperience. Traylor refused to use clean, new boards, preferring supports that were torn or stained. Although he rarely incorporated the flaws into his compositions, the preexisting marks seem to have generated visual energy that stimulated him.
Traylor’s birds, like his mammals, are the product of a life of careful observation. This turkey hen’s every muscle is tense as she snatches at a June bug. Traylor used the limits of the cardboard support to introduce a sense of urgency, with the insect seemingly about to escape off the edge of the board.
Traylor possessed an acute visual memory. Decades after he left the plantation, his drawings reanimated the farm animals he had known. Each of Traylor’s anatomically accurate creatures displays an individual personality. This animal’s large ears, dainty hooves, and tufted tail mark it as a mule or a hinny.
Traylor never learned to read or write, but sometime after he began drawing one of his friends taught him how to sign his work, as you see here.
Traylor energized this alert-looking pig by surrounding him with lively negative space formed by the repeating curves of his ears, tail, and legs. Traylor emphasized the massive quality of his body by crowding it against the top and right edges of the page and by juxtaposing its bulk against its dainty trotters. His sure command of form and line is seen in the subtle shapes of the pig’s snout, hooves, and hocks.
Traylor’s ability to make do with available materials is a trait common to people who grow up on farms. In their youth, he and his friends built a platform on the Alabama River, near the plantation, where they would spend hot summer days drinking and diving into the water. This lively drawing seems to be one of several in which the artist depicted that scene.
Well into the nineteenth century, observers in the South wrote of seeing both male and female slaves carrying burdens on their heads—a practice they had brought from Africa, where it is still common today. Here Traylor imbued his memories of that practice with his characteristic playfulness and fascination with balance.
Traylor’s whimsy found an ideal outlet in the acrobatic antics of his figures. Whether in the form of a bent man perched precariously on tip-toe, a figure carrying objects stacked on his head, or a figure suspended in mid-air while supporting two birds and a little man, Traylor seems to have been preoccupied with balance. His highly developed sense of equilibrium must have been honed while he performed many of his tasks on the farm, from framing a building to balancing a load.