The baptism of Pocahontas

It appears obvious that, in the course of his research, Chapman refined the narrative of the painting by incorporating additional figures and subtle layers of meaning. Yet the mural in the Rotunda remains a paradox. While it contains passages of fine detail and elegant composition, excellent use of light, and subtle tonality, it remains an awkward work. When it was unveiled it received mixed reviews. Benjamin B. French (1800-1870), clerk of the House of Representatives, saw it the day after it was installed and noted "several great defects, & some admirable points." In his diary he wrote: "I predict that the picture will be harshly criticized....Chapman has a good reputation, but this production will not add to it, though there are some points eminently beautiful. I saw it but a few moments, & had not time to note any excepting what struck me as glaring defects, or surpassing beauties."20 Even Chapman seems not to have been particularly proud of the mural, for in his daybook he merely notes "I have done the best I could and time must decide upon its merits and defects."21

A clue to the painting's peculiar appearance is contained in a letter discovered in the archives of the Architect of the Capitol. In 1853 William Kemble, an early patron of Chapman who later became his friend and business agent, wrote:

Chapman's picture in the Rotunda is particularly defective in the drawing and yet there are beautiful parts in it. Although it is unworthy of him, but yet he is a man of talents and capable of much better things, but this picture was painted under circumstances that would destroy the powers of a sensitive man such as he is, for he not only hurried it through to enable him to pay off debts that were oppressing him at the time, but it was painted under the affliction of the loss of a favored child.22

The devastating effect this tragedy had on Chapman's life and work are confirmed in a few brief notes in his daybook. On February 8, 1838, he wrote, "my dear boy John Linton Chapman, died after an illness of a few days." Two weeks later a daughter was born prematurely and died ten hours later. The following page for that year is empty save one sentence: "The record of this year should be a blank."23 Chapman later wrote of the mural: "A train of misfortunes and distress marked the progress of the work from the beginning to its installation-and the day I completed it I was laid on my bed for weeks. The whole autumn I was disabled by illness. I consider the money I have received for it as barely equivalent to its cost to me."24

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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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