The baptism of Pocahontas

While the Indians are central to the narrative, in the painting they are relegated to the shadows both literally and figuratively, the darkness perhaps representing their unconverted state. Their costumes are blurred and rendered in muddy tones; their forms are bulky and out of proportion. The men seem coarsely modeled when compared to the other central figures, and they are depicted as far more massive than the English. Chapman quoted Smith as saying that Pocahontas's favorite brother, Nantequaus, was the "manliest, comeliest, boldest spirit" he ever saw, and he painted him as towering above the other men.18 Nantequaus's head, turned to an unnatural extreme, is crowned in a plumed headdress, and he looks away from his sister in defiant objection to the white man's ceremony, thereby rejecting the tenants of Christianity. Opechancanough (c. 1545-c. 1644), Pocahontas's uncle, blatantly ignores the religious service as he sits brooding in the shadows, his face dark with either glum resignation or, perhaps, sullen cunning. In 1622 he led a well organized attack on Jamestown and its outlying plantations during which a third of the colonists were massacred.

The figure to the far right is another of Pocahontas's uncles, Opachisco. He alone creates an impression of movement within the picture, positioned as though he was rushing forward to prevent the baptism from taking place, to halt the ultimate destruction of the Indians' world and heritage. Only Pocahontas's sister is rendered with as much precision, detail, and grace as the major English figures. She gazes intently at her sister, her little child clinging close, "as the snowy mantle of swan-skin, tipped with a gay plumage...fall[s] from her shoulders."19

While Chapman's writings do not explain the unusual treatment of the Indians' figures, his study for the mural (Fig. 10) suggests a very different intent from that seen in the finished work. Compared to the mural, the study has a narrower focus and includes only Pocahontas, Whitaker, and Rolfe as major figures. The standing Indian at the far right, his back to the viewer, does not intrude into an otherwise "civilized" scene nor is there any connection between him and the rather monochromatic Indian crouching in the foreground. Neither man expresses the strong emotions that Pocahontas's kinsmen convey in the final painting nor are they seen in the finished work

Pocahontas's upright posture and uplifted gaze echo another figure of her in Chapman's sketchbook (Fig. 9). Whitaker holds her hand in a relaxed manner rather than raising his hand as though giving a benediction or presenting the new convert to the congregation. The figure of Rolfe is far less engaged with his future bride. Poised with his weight on one foot, he appears hesitant, almost nervous, clasping his hands to his chest rather than reaching out to Pocahontas.

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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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