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The material world of the early south on view at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg
Powder Horn, Attributed to Jonathan Sarrazin, Charleston , South Carolina , 1762-1764. Cow horn. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. Courtesy of The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.

WILLIAMSBURG, VA.- A groundbreaking exhibition examining the material culture of the early South from the 17th century through 1840—the first of its kind to include a wide variety of media—opened at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, on February 14, 2014. A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South features a dozen categories of media and represent four geographic regions of the South. More than 400 objects have been drawn from the Colonial Williamsburg collections, those of 10 other institutions and 14 private collections. Many of the items in the exhibition are on public view for the first time in a museum setting. Like the culture they represent, the objects are diverse, chronologically telling the story of the region’s population as it expanded westward and southward toward the frontier.

“The early American South has long been depicted as a society that produced almost none of the objects used by its substantial populace. However, the opposite is true. Southern artists and artisans generated a vast body of material in virtually every medium. The abundance and diverse cultural resonance of these goods will be powerfully conveyed by the objects assembled for this exhibition,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s vice president for collections, conservation, and museums and its Carlisle H. Humelsine Chief Curator.

Featured in A Rich and Varied Culture are furniture, paintings, prints, metals (silver and pewter), ceramics, mechanical arts and arms, architectural elements, archaeological objects, rare books, maps, costumes and accessories and musical instruments. These objects are each receiving detailed, exhaustive research that sometimes challenges previous findings. In one example, a remarkable painting of Frances Parke Custis, on loan from Washington and Lee University, has recently been identified as the work of the Brodnax Limner, a little-known artist who worked in Virginia during the 1720s. Similarly, an elaborately decorated 1770s “dresser” or hutch was long thought to be a Pennsylvania product, but has proven instead to be the work of a Quaker cabinetmaker working in Chatham County, North Carolina.

While the majority of the objects and paintings in the exhibition come from the various collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, several sister institutions are also lending to this important undertaking in an example of unprecedented partnership. Chief among them is The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) at Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with which the Art Museums recently announced a five-year partnership; it is the largest lender with 39 objects. Other lenders include Drayton Hall, a Historic Site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Charleston, South Carolina; The Charleston Museum; Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia; The Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library in Winterthur, Delaware; Historic Charleston Foundation; Tennessee State Museum; the University of Tennessee’s Department of Anthropology and McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture; Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville, Tennessee; and The President’s House Collection at The College of Williams & Mary in Williamsburg. Fourteen private collectors are also generously lending to the exhibition.

As visitors walk through the exhibition galleries, they will be transported to the Chesapeake region of coastal Maryland, Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. Next they will encounter the Carolina Low Country, reaching from southeastern North Carolina through coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Viewers then will confront works from the Backcountry South, including the western reaches of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, as well as West Virginia, the Georgia Piedmont and the states of Kentucky and Tennessee. A final section of the exhibition features works from the vital settlements along the Gulf Coast. In addition to objects and paintings made in these regions, the exhibition includes a selection of materials imported to the South from New England, the Middle Atlantic colonies, Great Britain, Germany and China.

“While many of the objects produced in the Chesapeake and the Carolina Low Country display a heavy reliance on British taste, the adventurous and entrepreneurial character of the ethnically diverse populations that migrated into the Backcountry is immediately apparent as one enters that section of the exhibition. These artisans produced highly sophisticated objects that exploited the availability of local materials, often profusely decorating them with motifs that reflect a wide array of cultural backgrounds,” observed Margaret Beck Pritchard, Colonial Williamsburg’s senior curator and curator of prints, maps and wallpapers.

A Rich and Varied Culture is curated by Mr. Hurst and Ms. Pritchard. Robert A. Leath, vice president of collections and research and chief curator at Old Salem Museums and Gardens, is consulting curator.

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