Side Image: 

William Ashby McCloy (American, 1913-2000), Paul and Babe, date unknown, tempera, 14 x 10¼ inches. Madison Art Association Purchase Award. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

About the Artist
William Ashby McCloy

Raised in China until the age of thirteen, William McCloy studied at the University of Iowa, earning Bachelor of Art, Master of Art in psychology, Master of Fine Arts, and Doctor of Philosophy in art history degrees. He also attended the Yale School of Fine Arts. He taught art at several institutions, including the University of Wisconsin, where he was a mural assistant to the Regionalist artist John Steuart Curry. He was commissioned to paint murals in Madison at Truax Field and the Wisconsin State Historical Society, as well as at the University of Manitoba. After his death in the summer of 2000, twenty-five hundred of his artworks spanning six decades were donated to the Salter Memorial Museum of Norwich, Connecticut, near Connecticut College where he had taught for twenty-four years. 

Key Ideas
  • Portraiture used to depict personal qualities and tell a story
  • Tall tales as a method of developing pride among worker groups and fooling "outsiders"
  • Humor and exaggeration as a means of conveying qualities of people and situations
Discussion Questions
  • When artists make portraits, they make decisions about which of the person’s characteristics they want to emphasize, such as their wealth and power or their personality. What characteristics of Paul and Babe is the artist portraying in this portrait?
  • What are some examples of friendships in your own life between animals and people? What are some ways that these friendships can be helpful?
  • Notice how the artist has organized the composition of this painting. What decisions were made about the parts of the figures that were revealed and the way they are arranged in the rectangle of the picture? What has the artist included in the composition to give clues for recognizing Paul Bunyan?
  • One of the main characteristics of tall tales is exaggeration—everything is bigger and better, and problems can be solved in more amazing ways than in real life. What do you think is the connection between Paul’s winking eye and the exaggeration in the tales of his life? What is the effect of exaggeration on the stories and on the painting?
  • ax a cutting tool that consists of a heavy edged head attached to a handle, with the edge parallel to the handle, that is used for felling trees and chopping and splitting wood
  • dupe to fool or deceive someone who is unwary
  • exaggerate to enlarge beyond bounds of the truth, to make an overstatement
  • lumberjack a logger, a person who cuts trees for lumber
  • naïve innocent, natural and unaffected, showing a lack of experience, worldly wisdom, or informed judgment
  • stork a large, long-legged, long-necked wading bird with a long, stout bill, described in stories as the deliverer of human babies

What's Going on Here? Stories in Art

A sly wink from this bearded fellow suggests there is some fun lurking here. His toothpick is a pine tree, a clue that the expected size of a person represented in a portrait might not be applicable. The strong color of the friendly ox whose head curls around his shoulder is another surprise. The title, Paul and Babe, announces that the fellow with jacket of red and blue squares and yellow buttons is Paul Bunyan, and that his pal is Babe, the Blue Ox, famous heroes of many tall tales passed along by lumberjacks and others in America’s northern and northwestern states. Some of the “biography” of Paul and Babe circulated in those stories explains that:

  • It took five giant storks, working overtime, to deliver Paul to his parents. Three hours after his birth he was reported to weigh eighty pounds; it took a whole herd of cows to keep his milk bottle filled. Paul grew so fast that one week after being born, he had to wear his father’s clothes. He needed a lumber wagon drawn by a team of oxen for his baby carriage. He would eat forty bowls of porridge just to awaken his appetite.
  • Paul rescued Babe, as a calf, during the Winter of Blue Snow, when it was so cold the geese flew backward and the snow and the baby ox were blue. Paul took Babe home and warmed him, and his color stayed blue. Babe grew to be so strong he was soon seven ax handles wide between the eyes and it took a crow a full day to fly from the tip of one horn to the other. He could pull anything that had two ends, except Paul, who once used Babe to straighten out thirty miles of a crooked road.
  • Paul became so big that he spent all his time in the great outdoors, and it was natural for him to become the Word’s Greatest Lumberjack. He could cut down whole forests by himself in just a few minutes by tying his huge ax to the end of a long rope and swinging it in circles.

The "Paul and Babe" tales likely originated in the logging camps of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, but some people believe they have a French-Canadian history and may even have been brought to North America from Europe. Passed along by word of mouth and frequently altered in the course of their retelling, tall tales are stories that are not believed by their narrator but have often been created to dupe their naïve listeners, such as those that were presented to city slickers about life in the American West during the years of settlement. Each worker group, such as cowboys, lumberjacks, railroad builders, and steel workers, took pride in its own tall-tale hero who could do their jobs with superhuman abilities. The stories were passed along with exaggeration, new ideas, and jokes created by each storyteller.