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November 1, 2010

Colonial Williamsburg Librarian Solves The Mystery Of “The Old Plantation”

A Colonial Williamsburg Foundation decorative arts librarian has solved one of folk art’s most popular mysteries of the past century – the identity of the artist who painted “The Old Plantation.”

The unsigned work has perplexed scholars, historians and art enthusiasts since Abby Aldrich Rockefeller first acquired the watercolor in 1935 and added it to her growing collection of folk art. 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, as well of those interested in the genesis of American folk art.

Using primary documents and reanalyzing existing scholarship, Susan P. Shames drew on her 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.” Following an extensive analysis of materials used and artistic techniques evident in both watercolors, Colonial Williamsburg’s curatorial staff concluded that the paintings were created by the same artist.

Her extensive investigation led Shames to nine possibilities. 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 with strong civic and religious interests.

“It was an interesting challenge,” said Shames. “The project quickly changed from wondering if identifying a previously-unknown artist was possible, to delight over the discovery, to excitement that so much information about this important image and its maker could be extracted from the records. Everything about Rose’s life came under scrutiny. It’s the whole process of investigation and discovery that keeps the historical past very much alive and relevant for me.”

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

Born in the early 1750s, Rose first appears in the public records in 1775 in Beaufort District in South Carolina. Shames believes it was there that Rose created “The Old Plantation.”

Rose died in Charleston in 1820. His undated will leaves the painting of “The Old Plantation” to a son-in-law.

Shames narrates the fascinating story of her quest and the details of Rose’s life in a new handsomely illustrated 80-page book published by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Printed on acid-free paper in hardcover, “The Old Plantation: The Artist Revealed” can be ordered now on-line at and will be available later this month in Colonial Williamsburg stores for $24.95. (ISBN 978-0-87935-243-1.) Publication was made possible by a generous grant from the Nicholas and Eleanor Chabraja Foundation of Lake Forest, Ill. The Chabrajas have supported Colonial Williamsburg more than 30 years and are members of the Colonial Williamsburg Associates.

Shames’ hunt for the artist’s identity also will be featured in a new exhibition, “The Old Plantation: The Artist Revealed,” opening Feb. 19, 2011 in the Mary B. and William Lehman Guyton Gallery of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.

Shames has served as the decorative arts librarian for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation since 1978. She holds a Ph.D. in American civilization from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a member of the National Genealogical Society, the Association for Gravestone Studies and a life member of the Virginia Genealogical Society.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational and cultural organization dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and presentation of the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia. This town-sized living history museum tells the inspirational stories of our journey to become Americans through programs in the Historic Area and through the award-winning Revolutionary City program. Explore The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg and discover the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum featuring the best in British and American decorative arts from 1670 – 1830 and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, comprising more than 5,000 folk art objects made during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Colonial Williamsburg Hotels feature conference spaces and recreation activities from spa and fine dining to world-class golf. Colonial Williamsburg is committed to expanding its thought-provoking programming through education outreach on-site and online. Purchase of Colonial Williamsburg products and services supports the preservation, research and educational programs of the Foundation. Philanthropic support by individuals, corporations, and foundations benefits the educational mission of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

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. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s website at

Media Contact:
Jim Bradley
(757) 220-7121