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This watercolor owned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is described as "the best-known surviving 18th century depiction of slaves in America." It has been widely reproduced in publications and educational texts for more than 50 years. But its artist and its history was unknown -- until now!
Susan P. Shames, decorative arts librarian, PhD in American civilization, and genealogist, has identified the painter as John Rose, husband to second wife Mary Capers Ladson, one of four John Roses of Beaufort District. Using wills, inventories, census records, mortgages, petitions, and other legal documents relating to identify individual slaves of John Rose (the artist), she posits that the 12 slaves depicted in the painting are most likely: Ansell, Cain, Dianna, Dick, Hagar, Hamon, Isaac, Maryann, Mingo , Peter , Phillis, Quilla, Sabina , Satyra, Solomon, Tom , Young Tom , and/or Tybee.
It took impressive skills of analysis and attention to detail to winnow down a universe of 50 slaves to a pool of only 18 possible candidates. While her intent was to uncover the hidden history of a particular work of art, she also uncovers the hidden history of individual slaves of the artist.
Read the fascinating story of how to unravel an art history mystery in The Old Plantation: The Artist Revealed by Susan P. Shames Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2010. The book is available in the BDC Research Room as well as from the Local History sections at all our branch libraries, call number 759.13 SHA.