I’m recently back from the annual meeting of the 2016 Virginia Forum hosted by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. The presentations, roundtables and discussions of this year’s VA Forum centered on the theme, “Convergences and Disjunctures.” Conferences are great for networking, new learnings and professional development in the disciplines. At the same time, it’s also the informal breaking-bread together moments that provide lots of fodder for interdisciplinary talk and camaraderie.
And so, on the last night of the Forum back at Colonial Williamsburg’s Woodlands hotel, a small group of us had a great time talking about our work that brings us to the Virginia Forum each year. Among us were Gregg D. Kimball, Director of Public Services and Outreach at the Library of Virginia and Jurretta Heckscher, Reference Specialist for Early American History at the Library of Congress who have fascinating ongoing research projects and interests. Moreover, Gregg is an accomplished professional musician who plays in several grass roots bands (he played some of his “down home” guitar for us) and Jurretta is also a dance history specialist.
Our lively conversation and information gathering on music, religion, dance, recent publications and all kinds of history led to the topic of the famous 18th century folk art watercolor, “The Old Plantation.” As many of you know, the painting is now attributed to South Carolina slaveholder and artist John Rose (ca. 1752-1820) with a most likely portrayal of a plantation he owned in Beaufort County, South Carolina. I’ve used the painting in my interdisciplinary course on “marriage matters” in African American women’s cultural narratives. Not knowing much about its speculative provenance, I was first fascinated with the painting because of previous interpretations that the watercolor depicts 18th century enslaved people performing a wedding dance or jumping the broom. Jurretta enthusiastically informed me that the original painting “is right here in one of the Colonial Williamsburg museums!” At that moment, I knew I had to see the original.
Leaving our finger prints as proof that we were there
The next day, with two other Virginia Forum regulars, Deborah Lee and Kathy McGill, I went to the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, which are located under one roof in Colonial Williamsburg. A balmy and peaceful Sunday morning and the muses were on our side: The original watercolor was on display. The security guard who also serves as a knowledgeable museum docent informed us that a copy of “The Old Plantation” is often on display instead of the original. In museums throughout the world, famous and rare originals are displayed only intermittently, if at all, in order to preserve their integrity. Originals are placed in more temperature-controlled, darkened and sometimes hidden storage facilities.
In this instance, the unframed watercolor original was unceremoniously lying in a glass case. We talked about it, leaned on the glass case because of the gallery’s dim lights, left our finger prints on the glass, went away to view other paintings and decorative arts and then returned to the famous watercolor for a final viewing with more questions among ourselves. Indeed, because it’s such a rare 18th century portrayal of enslaved Africans “among themselves” on a North American plantation, seeing the original watercolor and knowing about its newly discovered provenance is a kind of viewing ceremony for folk art, cultural studies and history enthusiasts. From another perspective, the small group of African people on Rose’s plantation left their cultural finger prints as a testimony to their own provenance.
Finding out what’s going on at the old plantation
Many of our questions are answered in the book The Old Plantation: The Artist Revealed by Susan P. Shames, decorative arts librarian with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Shames gives a fascinating account of how she became a “history detective” and through decades of archival and oral history research documented the provenance of the famous artifact and its, heretofore, unknown artist.
Using investigative research methods to excavate previously unknown facts and truths about fascinating subjects is nothing new. But with the meticulous and rigorous approach that such research demands, Shames “sets the record straight” about Rose’s watercolor and engages the reader like the steady unfolding of a curious mystery story. Identifying, interpreting and applying public documents such as birth, death, marriage and probate records, census data and good old oral history stories, Shames successfully reveals the provenance of the painting whose artist had been anonymous to the public for centuries.