The baptism of Pocahontas

By the time Chapman began his mural, the few remaining American Indians in Virginia had intermarried with English settlers, given up their native dress, and been confined to two small reservations.13 Nevertheless, Chapman had had ample opportunity to observe Indians in the studio of King, who was working on his series of Indian portraits during the time he was Chapman's teacher. King later gave his student two paintings, a portrait of a young Indian girl and a group portrait of five Indian men.14 In addition, Chapman's studio n Washington was located directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from Brown's Indian Queen Hotel, which hosted many delegations of American Indians and had a sign that included a depiction of an Indian woman said to be Pocahontas.

Chapman stated that he based the interior of the church in the painting on one built in Jamestown around the time of Pocahontas's baptism, and that the font was hewn of native oak. Sixteenth-century English paintings served as inspiration for the attire of the participants, both military and civilian. The central figures in the finished painting are bathed in bright light and arranged in a pyramid that is social as well as symbolic. At the apex is the Reverend Alexander Whitaker (1585-1616), who, as the representative of the Church of England and a new world order, appears to be the most important figure in the painting. Sir Thomas Dale (d. 1619), governor of the colony, is prominently placed in the left foreground. Rolfe extends his hand to his bride-to-be. Behind him stands Captain Samuel Argall (1572-1626), who abducted Pocahontas as a hostage to be exchanged for several Englishmen held by the Indians. Since there is no known record of those in attendance at the baptism, to add verisimilitude, Chapman included various individuals whom he identified in a key he created for the painting and included in his pamphlet (Fig. 11).15 Some, such as Pocahontas's uncle and two of her brothers, were known to have attended her wedding, others were discovered by Chapman in his research of the colony's settlement.16

Chapman sketched several preliminary versions of Pocahontas, but in only one (Fig. 8) does the model strike a pose similar to the one she assumes in the mural.17 In this sketch she is depicted as a highly Anglicized demure maiden, her hair primly bound, her clasped hands recalling paintings of the Madonna. In the mural, however, her hair cascades down her back in dark waves. Her tawny skin contrasts with the white of her European style gown and with the faces of the English settlers. Instead of the brave young woman who defied her father and saved men's lives, we see a Pocahontas who is diminished both in the painting and in life, just as her fellow Indians would soon be.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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