“The Death of General Wolfe" by Benjamin West, 1771. (Courtesy National Gallery of Canada)

Ifyou only have a day to spend at Colonial Williamsburg, and especially if you have kids in tow, it may be a hard sell to spend time in the park’s well-stocked and well-presented art museums. But a new exhibition, “Painters and Paintings in the Early American South,” is worth a visit, not just by visitors who have done the obligatory tour of the reconstructed Colonial capital, but by art lovers interested in pushing the boundaries of what they know about painting in America before the United States was even notional.

The show takes us well beyond the established names: Charles Willson Peale, who sired legions of other Peale family artists, and inspired at least as many followers; John Singleton Copley, a prodigious talent who dominated painting in Boston and New England, even after he decamped permanently to London; and Benjamin West, child of an innkeeper, later president of the Royal Academy in London, and for many years the go-to teacher for aspiring American talents. All three are represented in the exhibition, and Peale is a major player in the development of a uniquely American art tradition. But the real emphasis is on lesser names and lesser talents, artists who circulated in the South, in many cases knew one another or one another’s work, and catered to an increasing appetite for luxury goods among the burgeoning middle and upper classes of Colonial America.

The effect is a bit like looking at art in an isolation chamber, controlling the parameters to see subtle processes at work. If one were to study, say, portraiture in Europe during the same period, roughly 1740 to 1790, the data would be overwhelming. But in America, where only a small number of artists rose to distinction, one can trace the DNA of ideas and techniques a bit more confidently. Although the lives and careers of many of the artists on display are known only sketchily, you can see them responding to one another and to fashionable ideas imported from Europe. You can also distinguish those artists who grew in skill and talent, not just absorbing but synthesizing ideas, and those who shifted with the winds, never growing much, but adapting as tastes and markets changed.

An enormous companion book by curator Carolyn J. Weekley gives the project serious scholarly heft. But the exhibition invites a broader audience to consider basic questions. Where are the lines between folk art and Art with a capital A? What is gained and lost as artists grow in sophistication and knowledge of the latest trends? Was the freedom and isolation of working in a backwater Colonial environment a net boon or loss to these artists?

All of these questions lead one back to the central one: What is good art?

The vast majority of the work on display is portraiture, made by artists for relatively elite clients who wanted both a living memory of familiar faces, and the status marker of a painting hanging on the wall. Artists such as John Wollaston Jr., who worked in New York and Pennsylvania before extended and productive stays in Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina, churned out hundreds of portraits. His work underscores a paradox of artistry during the period: Paintings that look good from an artistic point of view aren’t necessarily very good at conveying specific information about people.

Wollaston arrived in America in 1749 and worked here for almost 20 years. His father was an artist and a musician, too, and the Wollaston family apparently had solid cultural connections in London, where the elder Wollaston likely came into contact with the composer Handel at a prestigious musical club.

Knowing that, it’s easy to see a veneer of elegance and sophistication in the younger Wollaston’s work, which is attentive to the details of dress, the sheen on silk and flow of drapery and dress. But Wollaston also seems to have come under the influence of a generic late Baroque or Rococo sense of prettiness, and his faces all look distressingly similar: round, wide-eyed and flushed with pink hues. Life is serene, ladies are lovely, and everything is slightly vacant. As objects, his paintings are desirable, but it’s difficult, at times, to tell one person from another.

Contrast that with John Durand, a skilled coach and sign painter, who also made portraits. Durand arrived in America later than Wollaston, sometime around 1766-67, and worked in New York and Connecticut, as well as in Virginia, which qualifies him for inclusion in the show. Side by side with Wollaston’s work, Durand’s portraits feel more indebted to the stubby bodies and doll-like faces of anonymous folk art portraits. Crude, heavy shadows suggest his origins in sign painting. Yet Durand improves as a painter over time, and even in his more primitive work his subjects feel more individual and distinctive than those of Wollaston. He is uneven, but that makes the work more exciting, as in a paired set of portraits of the Newton family in which the parents live and breath while a child painted with the mother feels like a caricature. Yet the features of the family are clearly depicted and even the rather comic figure of the young Newton son shows the family resemblance.

Just what was a painting supposed to do? Weekley’s book probes the issue, eschewing the easy hierarchies of good and bad work, and neat distinctions between fine art and folk art. A professional painter might paint walls, do a little gilding, emblazon the side of coach, and paint portraits when called on. They were craftsmen, akin to furniture builders, but they were also living in a rapidly changing world, in which ambitious artists were struggling to be numbered among what we might call the white-collared creative class. Everything was in flux.

A poignant case — at least by contemporary standards — is that of Matthew Pratt, the first young American painter to make the pilgrimage to London to sit at the feet of the great Benjamin West. He returned to America in 1768 as a formidable artist with a lot of European polish and his works are some of the most intriguing in the show. But he seems to have had diminishing luck as a fine artist, returning to more utilitarian work in sign painting before his death in Philadelphia in 1805. Was that a disappointment? It’s tempting, but perhaps unjustified, to read into this a tragic tale of talented neglected; sign painting could be lucrative, respectable work.

The exhibition is divided into two rooms, the first looking closely at portraiture (the dominant art form in both England and America at the time), and the webs of connection between artists such as Wollaston, John Hesselius and Robert Feke, as well as the extended Badger family, a clan of artists that emerged in Boston and also did work in the South.

The second room picks up other threads, including the wonderfully moody and skilled work of Jose Salazar, who moved to Louisiana from the Colonial hub of Merida in the Yucatan, and brought with him a distinctively urbane, Spanish style of painting. An early Benjamin West portrait of Severn Eyre, scion of a prominent Virginia family, made before West went to England, gives rare insight into the artist’s raw talent, before refinement in Europe. Several Charles Willson Peales leave one wondering if his chase after the fashion of the day may have led him astray. Earlier, more atmospheric work, including a delightful 1771 portrait of the actress Nancy Hallam in the cross-dressing role of Shakespeare’s Imogen/Fidele from “Cymbeline,” has a romance and whimsy that leaches out of two later, more neoclassical portraits seen nearby. Two major works by Peale, the 1772 and 1780 portraits of George Washington (in Virginia militia dress and later as leader of American forces, with his hand resting on a cannon after the battle of Princeton) dominate the space and will appeal to visitors hankering after familiar, iconic works.

The current exhibition is only the first part of a projected larger overview of painting in the early South. Another exhibition, scheduled for 2015, will take up an earlier period, from the earliest Colonial incursions into the region, including work of primarily naturalist and ethnographic interest. The ambition of the project is impressive. Scholarship at Williamsburg is like the proverbial light under a bushel, very much a part of what they do, but without most visitors being explicitly aware of its importance. Even the architecture of the art museums replicates the careful balance between nostalgia and substance: Visitors enter through a reconstructed 1771 brick mental hospital, pass through a tunnel and emerge in a fully functioning, well-designed modern gallery space — discreetly hidden from view by a large fence.

Even if you’re allergic to carriage rides, costumes and demonstrations of blacksmithing, “Painters and Paintings in the Early American South” is worth every minute invested in its detailed and thoroughgoing overview.

Painters and Paintings in the Early American South

is on view at the art museums of Colonial Williamsburg through September 2014.