The baptism of Pocahontas

At the time Chapman began work on the painting, many politicians viewed American Indians as barbarous heathens, to be pushed as far away from civilized people as possible. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson announced a controversial plan to remove all Indians to the newly acquired lands west of the Mississippi. The Baptism of Pocahontas may have been Chapman's personal response to Jackson's plan, since in his other Indian paintings he had portrayed these first Virginians with sensitivity and espect and his writings reveal admiration for them.

Chapman felt that Pocahontas had unwittingly practiced Christian charity and virtue even before she was converted. As he wrote in the pamphlet accompanying the painting, she was

both in mind and person, one of the choicest models the hand of nature ever formed. With the purest simplicity she united the kindest heart and...a firmness of spirit and an adventurous daring, which more than once, when the existence of the Colony was at stake, prompted her to traverse the midnight forest alone, and brave the indignation of her kindred, to give advice and warning.8

Chapman continued that "this spotless Indian girl" had not only saved Smith's life on several occasions, but she also hid Richard Wyffin from Indian pursuers and saved Henry Spillman from the "fury of her own people."

But it was not merely these acts of kindness and bravery that caused Chapman to find Pocahontas "deserv[ing] the dignity of a historical character" and a "fit subject for a National Picture...to commemorate the history and actions of our ancestors."9 It is apparent that he felt that she, as the "first Christian ever of her Nation," symbolized all that was noble and good about the goal of Jamestown's founders, namely to convert the natives and build a strong Christian nation. Chapman explains: "She stands foremost in the train of those wandering children of the forest who have at different times...been snatched from the fangs of a barbarous idolatry, to become lambs in the fold of the Divine Shepherd."10

Seeking to create a historically accurate painting, Chapman traveled to England with hopes of finding furnishings, costumes, and artifacts of the period, as well as portraits of the key figures. His sketchbooks reveal that he returned with only a sketch of a chair. Chapman also examined a number of purported portraits of Pocahontas and even consulted with Sully regarding the accuracy of the one that descended in her family and became known as the Turkey Island portrait.11 But the only known depiction of Pocahontas from life was a rather stiff and dour engraving made in London in 1616 (Fig. 1).12

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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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