This is one of my favorite folk art paintings of all time, and one that I thought would forever remain a mystery. Back in my grad school days, when i took the American Folk Art course offered by Lou and Aggie Jones here at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, this painting was one that the Joneses love to dwell upon. It's called "The Old Plantation," and it depicts a group of slaves playing music and dancing at an unidentified plantation on a riverbank. It is in the collection of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Physical evidence gave some clues to the painting's origins; a watermark on the paper indicated a date of around 1790. The piece was found in an antique shop in South Carolina in the early part of the 20th century. The key question was whether the work was done by a white or a black artist. It certainly looked like a piece done by someone skilled and experienced in watercolor, but there were trained African American artists prior to the American Revolution. The details of the painting, particularly the instruments (which are African or African-inspired) and the nature of the dance itself, seemed to indicate an artist who was intimately familiar with slave culture. To many scholars that seemed enough to lean toward the notion of this having been painted by an artist who was also a slave on this plantation.
Now, owing to careful research, we know that this is not the case at all. Susan P. Shames, a librarian at Colonial Williamsburg, conducted extensive research into period documents, gravestones, and newspapers to identify the artist as John Rose, a plantation owner (and watercolorist) who kept slaves at his riverfront plantation in South Carolina in the 1790s. One key breakthrough had come years ago, in 1976, when a pair of elderly sisters came to Colonial Williamsburg to see the painting and informed staff that the piece had descended in their family and that it was painted by an ancestor of theirs depicting his own plantation. It was Ms. Shames who discovered that one of the ladies' forebears was John Rose.
When I traveled to Williamsburg in the mid-1980s to conduct research on our own folk art collection, I recall vividly my reaction to seeing this piece for the first time. My first thought was "I can't believe it's that small." The iconic painting is only about 11" x 18". It occupied a small section of wall just to the right as you entered the folk art museum's "Carolina Room," and I remember thinking how unfortunate it is that we will never know who painted it.
Now that we do know, this painting rises, in my estimation, from a larger-than-life folk art icon to an unequivocal national treasure. But it's going to be hard to adjust my thinking (and my lecture notes) after speaking about this piece to my own grad students for the past 25 years.