This remarkable, large-format mule by celebrated self-taught artist Bill Traylor (1854-1949) renders a strong and solid animal through bold opaque watercolor. While the animal's outline is clean and minimal, the surface of the drawing tells a rich and layered story of how the artist worked.
After a lifetime on a plantation, former slave Traylor moved to Montgomery, Alabama, in his old age. Crippled with rheumatism, he began to draw. He sat on a doorstep on Monroe Street rendering starkly modernist farm animals, architectural elements from his new city, dancing and drinking and fighting figures, and other images drawn from his current and previous experiences. Traylor worked on found cardboard, and per later accounts would hang his drawings by a small loop of string along a nearby fence. Black Mule retains this string fastened through a puncture at the top of the composition. The artist's handprints can also be seen above and below the animal, flanking the beast and making the artist entirely present in the work.
Black Mule belonged to Elizabeth Oosterom-Dragon, whose brother Richard owned the R.H. Oosterom Gallery, which mounted the first exhibition of Bill Traylor's work in New York in 1979. The Oosterom family's support of the art after years of little attention helped launch the artist's career for a new generation, and shortly thereafter, in 1982, Traylor's work appeared in the Corcoran Gallery of Art's Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980 exhibition. Oosterom-Dragon owned this particular work as early as 1979.