Americans of varied backgrounds represented in new exhibition

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Americans of varied backgrounds represented in new exhibition
Music and Dance in Beaufort County (Formerly known as The Old Plantation), Attributed to John Rose (1752/1753-1820), America, South Carolina, Beaufort County, ca. 1785. Watercolor on laid paper. Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1935.301.3, A&B.

WILLIAMSBURG, VA.- Early American Faces, a new assemblage of important paintings and watercolors from both the fine art and folk art collections in the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, is on view to herald the expanded Art Museums. The exhibition illustrates the stories of early Americans from many walks of life—men, women, children, free, enslaved, American Indian, African American and people of European descent—all of whom are represented within the Foundation’s collections. Although small in number, the eight oil paintings and watercolors featured in the exhibition exemplify some of the highlights within the collections. Early American Faces opened on June 14 when the Art Museums reopened after being closed due to COVID-19 and will remain on view until December 31, 2022.

“In collecting the art and artifacts of early America, Colonial Williamsburg has long striven to represent the broad cultural diversity that was a part of our makeup from the very beginning,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the Foundation’s Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator and vice president for museums, preservation, and historic resources. “Placed in the first gallery encountered by visitors to the Art Museums, this exhibition signals that the collections in the galleries ahead will speak to many different heritages.”

Early representations of African Americans are rare, and those that lack the distortions of caricature and stereotyping are even more so. Featured in Early American Faces is Portrait of an Enslaved Child, an intimate, empathetic and closely observed portrait that portrays one of the enslaved children owned by the Custis family. This watercolor with pencil and ink was rendered in 1830 by 22-year-old Mary Anna Randolph Custis, probably at her parents’ Arlington plantation in northern Virginia. Miss Custis harbored a lifelong concern for the education of the enslaved, teaching those at Arlington to read and write in preparation for their eventual emancipation. Her father's 1857 will directed that his enslaved people be freed, and his son-in-law, Robert E. Lee, fulfilled that plan in 1862. (Due to the light sensitivity of the original in Colonial Williamsburg’s collection, and therefore because it cannot be exhibited for long periods of time, an enlarged reproduction will be displayed in Early American Faces.)

An especially captivating depiction in the exhibition is of one of our country’s native inhabitants, Portrait of an American Indian Man, an oil on canvas, possibly painted in London, ca. 1790. Although the man’s identity is unknown as is the artist who painted his portrait, the subject is likely a member of the Iroquois or a related tribe from the southern Great Lakes region. The dignified man’s attire is a blend of European and Indian traditions that was common in the eighteenth century. The blanket or “matchcoat” draped over his left arm, the English-style shirt, and the silver armband on his right bicep were then favored by many American Indian men. Scalplocks, achieved by plucking the hair over most of the head but allowing a patch on top to grow long, were also widely popular. The portrait may have been done in England; beginning in the early eighteenth century, a surprising number of American Indian men and women crossed the Atlantic to visit England.

Among the most recognizable works to be displayed in Early American Faces is Charles Willlson Peale’s portrait of George Washington, painted in 1780. It is a version of his famous, full-length likeness commissioned by the Pennsylvania government’s state house (now known as Independence Hall) to honor the general’s recent military victories. In an unmistakable statement towards the crown, Peale used a pose previously reserved for British monarchs, including George III. This copy of the first portrait (Peale received orders for several copies due to the original’s successful reception), hung at Shirley Plantation, which is near Colonial Williamsburg, for more than a century.

At Colonial Williamsburg, the stories of all early Americans are told. Early American Faces shines a light on but a few of them but will show visitors an honest representation of those who came before us.

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