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The Old Plantation

ca. 1785
Origin: America, South Carolina, Beaufort County
Other (Primary support): 11 11/16 x 17 7/8in. (29.7 x 45.4cm) Framed: 14 11/16 x 20 7/8in. (37.3 x 53cm)
Watercolor on laid paper
Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller
Acc. No. 1935.301.3,A&B
An al fresco scene showing two groups of African-Americans interacting. All the figures are close to the front of the picture plane. At left is a group of four men and three women. Two of these women stand and face a man from the opposing group; each of the two women extends a length of cloth stretched between her two hands. At right is a group of four men and one woman. The man standing closest to the two women from the lefthand group holds a stick between his two hands and stands on the balls of his feet, partly bending as he advances toward the two women. Behind him, included in the group at right, a seated man in a flat-brimmed hat plays a four-stringed banjo and, beside him, another seated man plays a small drum. Behind each of the two groups is a small frame building. A body of water runs behind the two groups of figures and, in the distance beyond it, a large, hipped-roof building is visible with, nearby, scattered smaller outbuildings.
The 1 1/2-inch splayed, black-painted frame with a flat outer edge is a period replacement.
Label:This rare and important watercolor was acquired for Abby Aldrich Rockefeller's collection by Holger Cahill during an eighteen-month buying trip through the South. Until recently, the identity of the artist was unknown. New research strongly suggests that John Rose, a Beaufort County, South Carolina, planter civic leader, and amateur artist, rendered this sensitive portrayal of the slaves on his plantation. Although it has been previously interpreted as a jumping-the-broom ceremony, the figures are participating in a West African stick dance to the accompaniment of African musical instruments, supporting the idea that at least some African traditions survived the Atlantic crossing.

Rose’s painting is highly detailed in the rendering of objects and even more particularly in the execution of faces, which are individualized and which undoubtedly represent persons he knew. Though small, the picture has a highly complex composition with figures in two basic groups, one at right and one at left, with a building behind each. The two women at left each shake a shegureh, a rattle of African origin. The drum and the stringed instrument also had origins in Africa.
Provenance:The following has been pieced together from file papers and from Shames ("Bibliography"): Bequeathed by the artist to his son-in-law, Thomas Davis Stall (1770-1848); to his daughter, Mrs. Henry Ellis (Emilia Rosalie Stall)(1820-1890) of Orangeburg, SC; to her daughter, Mrs. Robert Copes (Rose Rowan Ellis)(1846-1927) of Orangeburg, SC; to her daughters, Rosalie Copes of Washington, DC, and Henrietta ("Nettie") Copes of Orangeburg, SC; [possibly to an unidentified interim dealer]; to Mary Earle Lyles (b. 1878) of Columbia, SC; to Holger Cahill; to Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr.; given by the latter to CWF in 1935.

Mark(s):An elaborate watermark in the primary support has been identified as the Strasburg Arms above the script cipher "JW", a combination of mark and countermark used by the English papermaker James Whatman II (1741-1798) during the period 1777-1794.