Acclaimed Author Alice Walker Is Selling a Painting by Bill Traylor Once Given to Her as a Gift From Steven Spielberg

Walker cites anxiety about fires in her home state of California as one impetus for selling the piece.

Bill Traylor (circa 1853-1949), Man on White, Woman on Red / Man with Black Dog, double sided, (1939-1942). Tempera and graphite on paper. 18 7/8 x 24 in. Image courtesy Christie's Images Ltd. 2019.

The buzz surrounding Bill Traylor continues to grow. The self-taught artist, who was born into slavery in 1853, began making work in 1939, at the age of 86, when he was living as a homeless man in Montgomery, Alabama—an experience that made him an ardent observer of those around him. He passed the time by spending his days on the city’s Monroe Street, incorporating the people he saw into his work. 

Perhaps building on the momentum of a comprehensive exhibition of Traylor’s work currently on view at David Zwirner in New York, Christie’s has announced the sale of his Man on White, Woman on Red / Man with Black Dog (double-sided), slated to fetch an estimated $200,000 to $400,000 when it hits the auction block on January 17 of next year.

The painting, which is being touted by the auction house as a highlight of its forthcoming Outsider Art sale, also has an intriguing backstory. It comes from the personal collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, who was gifted the work by Steven Spielberg after filming wrapped on the movie adaption of her novel, The Color Purple. Walker, speaking to the Wall Street Journal, described the artwork as “a gift from someone I consider a genius with soul,” but ultimately explained that “my spirit tells me it is time for it to find a new home.” (She went on to explain that wildfires in California have made her nervous, and happy to have the Traylor find “a safer wall than mine on which to hang.”)

“The provenance of the work creates an interesting conversation between Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Traylor’s art,” Cara Zimmerman, head of the sale at Christie’s, said in a statement. “Both consider a similar moment in American history—hers looking back, and his from a contemporaneous perspective.” 

Man on White, Woman on Red / Man with Black Dog (double-sided), dated between 1939-1942, is notable for its double-sided composition, as well as Traylor’s use of the color red, a rarity for the artist. Additionally, the rendering of the dog suggests that the work fits into a larger series in which he was experimenting with various ways of portraying the animal. 

At present, the world auction record for the artist is held by Woman Pointing at Man with Cane (c. 1939-1942). The January 2019 sale of that particular work set off Traylor’s current market revival when it went for a whopping $396,500 at Christie’s in New York, far exceeding its modest $40,000 to $60,000 estimate. 

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