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February 8, 2011

Science of Super Sleuthing Documented in New Exhibition At Colonial Williamsburg’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum

A new exhibition at Colonial Williamsburg’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum documents the extensive detective work that solved one of the most elusive folk art puzzles of the past 75 years.

“The Old Plantation: The Artist Revealed” takes museum guests step-by-step through the process Susan Shames, decorative arts librarian at Colonial Williamsburg’s John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, used to discover who painted the iconic 18th-century watercolor depicting a group of 12 slaves at their leisure. The exhibition opens Saturday, Feb. 19 in the museum’s Mary B. and William Lehman Guyton Gallery.

To celebrate the new exhibition, the public is invited to a community reception and open house Wednesday, April 13 at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

The unsigned painting perplexed scholars, historians and art enthusiasts since Abby Aldrich Rockefeller first acquired it in 1935. Since then, the 18th-century work has been widely reproduced in textbooks and scholarly publications, providing a valuable tool for anyone studying slave life, music, dance and society.

Using primary documents and reanalyzing existing scholarship, Shames drew on a lifetime of expertise in material culture, genealogy and research methodology to trace the painting’s history to its creation more than 200 years ago.

The spark that ignited the successful quest to identify the artist was the 2008 acquisition of another watercolor, a small portrait of an African American woman titled “Miss Breme Jones.” Through extensive analysis of materials and artistic techniques evident in both watercolors, the curatorial staff concluded that the paintings were created by the same hand.

The investigation led Shames to nine possible suspects. By careful re-examination of the evidence and existing records, Shames was able to eventually eliminate all but one – South Carolinian John Rose, a plantation owner and slaveholder.

“Susan Shames has unlocked one of the great mysteries of American art,” said Ronald L. Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg’s vice president of collections, conservation and museums, and the Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator. “Her diligence and dedication revealed the career of an obscure 18th-century painter and the lives of the unnamed slaves depicted.”

In addition to identifying the artist, Shames’ research also led her to 18 possible names for the 12 slaves included in the painting: Ansell, Cain, Dianna, Dick, Hagar, Hamon, Isaac, Maryann, Mingo, Peter, Phillis, Quilla, Sabina, Satyra, Solomon, Tom, Young Tom, and Tybee.

The exhibition contains a third watercolor, attributed to Rose because of basic similarities to the “The Old Plantation” and “Miss Breme Jones” paintings. “Tranquil Hill: The Seat of Mrs. Ann Waring, Near Dorchester” depicts the plantation of a neighbor. Ann Ball Waring was a member of one the wealthiest South Carolina families of the period, and she and Rose attended the same church and traveled in the same social circles.

The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg include the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, with more than 5,000 folk art objects made during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum exhibits the best in British and American decorative arts from 1670–1830.

The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are located at the intersection of Francis and South Henry Streets in Williamsburg, Va., and are entered through the Public Hospital of 1773. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday – Thursday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday through March 13; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily thereafter. For museum program information, telephone (757) 220-7724.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational and cultural organization that preserves and operates the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia as a town-sized living history museum, telling the inspirational stories of our nation’s founding men and women. Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s website at

Media Contact:
Jim Bradley
(757) 220-7281