The baptism of Pocahontas

It may not be coincidental that Chapman's close friend, the Virginia congressman Henry Alexander Wise (1806-1876), first introduced the resolution to form a committee to select artists to complete the decoration of the Rotunda.3 Chapman wrote to Wise about his hopes for securing a mural commission and urged him to ask fellow southern politicians to champion his cause. The artist may have been inspired to create a series of works featuring Indians and the founding of Jamestown as a result of studying the writings of Captain John Smith and, possibly, Indian portraits by King and George Catlin (1796-1872).4 In 1836, at the National Academy of Design in New York, he exhibited two works, The Coronation of Powhatan (Fig. 4) and The Warning of Pocahontas, that firmly positioned him as a painter of historical scenes.

Senators from various regions vied to have "their" artist chosen to paint one of the murals, but the commissions were quietly awarded to Chapman, Robert W. Weir (1803-1889), John Vanderlyn (1775-1852), and Henry Inman (1801-1846) in February 1837.5 Initially the artists had been told that their subjects needed to represent scenes from the discovery and settling of America, but during the debate over the awarding of the commissions, Wise had argued, "You must go back until you meet events hallowed by time, and magnified and mystified by antiquity."6 Chapman clearly heeded his friend's words-and made a bow to his southern supporters-when he chose to depict a scene from the history of his native Virginia: The Baptism of Pocahontas.

Chapman did not explain his choice of subject in the small pamphlet published when his mural was unveiled,7 and several critics questioned why he had not elected to portray the more dramatic rescue of John Smith from death at the hands of Pocahontas's tribesmen. But Chapman had recently painted his own version of the rescue (Fig. 6) and the Rotunda already contained an image of this heroic act-The Preservation of Captain Smith by Pocahontas, a relief sculpture by Antonio Capellano that is positioned above the west doorway (Fig. 7). Here the scene of impending violence is presented in a manner typically seen in popular prints of the day: a half-clad young Indian woman surrounded by angry warriors pleads with her father for Smith's life. The calm, spiritual atmosphere of The Baptism of Pocahontas offers a striking counterpoint to Capellano's depiction.

Perhaps Chapman simply wished to paint an incident in the life of Pocahontas that no artist had already depicted, or perhaps, as a Virginian, he wished to discredit New England's claim that the Puritans and Pilgrims were the founders of the moral and Christian values of the United States. He may also have realized that his theme was ideally suited to the religious and romantic sentiments of the day. The painting is both straightforward and subtle. Its glorification of the assimilation of the country's first convert also includes an undercurrent of caution against the danger of choosing a life of idolatry, discord, and conflict rather than accepting Christianity's offer of salvation.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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