January 2009 | Lacking eyewitness accounts or written records, Chapman joined the ranks of historical painters and wove a few factual threads together to produce a finished tapestry of image and meaning.
Since ancient times, people have learned the lessons of religion, philosophy, and history from the art in churches, temples, and public places. The government buildings in Washington repeat this pattern, particularly the Capitol. Its Rotunda, completed in 1824 and originally ornamented with four murals by John Trumbull (1756-1843) depicting scenes from American history, has been called by many the symbolic heart of the United States. While Trumbull’s commission had been decided by a nearly unified Congress, when the question of completing four additional murals for the Rotunda was raised in 1828, the discussion was so contentious that it was ultimately swept away in a storm of political, local, and regional squabbling. In 1834 a committee of the House of Representatives announced their intention to have the murals completed. Artists quickly began petitioning Congress for the opportunity to win a commission. One of these artists was Chapman.
Born in Alexandria, Virginia, Chapman, at his father’s insistence, first attempted to study law, but his artistic talent was noticed and encouraged by his early teachers, the artists George Cooke (1793-1849) and Charles Bird King (1785-1862). King suggested Chapman study with Thomas Sully (1783-1872) in Philadelphia, and Sully, in turn, introduced him to the drawing master Pietro Ancora (active 1800-1843). In 1828 Chapman went to study in Italy, supported by his first patron, John Linton (c. 1745-1834), a southern planter and merchant who often lodged in Alexandria at Gadsby Tavern, which was owned by Chapman’s grandfather. Upon his return, Chapman traveled through his home state earning a modest living painting portraits and landscapes while absorbing Virginia’s legends and history. After settling in New York in 1834 he became one of the most popular book illustrators in the country (see Fig. 2) and the first to engrave his own work. He furnished more than fourteen hundred engravings for Harper and Brothers’ Illuminated Bible (1843-1846) alone, and also published The American Drawing-Book: A Manual for the Amateur and Basis of Study for the Professional Artist (1847). The latter went through many editions, became widely used as a textbook, and was hailed as the first nationally marketed book to offer a basis of study for both student artists and professionals.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.
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
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 in 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.
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.
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.”24Hounded by debts, Chapman left the United States in 1848 with his wife and three children, including another son born in 1839 also named John “Jack” Linton (1839-1905). After traveling in Europe for two years, they settled in Rome, where he Following his wife’s death in 1874, he became increasingly dependent on his fellow expatriates for support. Ten years later, he returned to the United States. He visited his son Conrad (1842-1910), an artist who was then in Mexico. He then moved in with his other son, Jack, also an artist, in Brooklyn, New York. He died there in 1889 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Chapman’s mural in the Rotunda can be considered his greatest legacy to American art. He wrote that it appeals “to our religious as well as our patriotic sympathies and is equally associated with the rise and progress of the Christian Church as with the political destinies of the United States.”25 It is a classic example of how politics, religion, and social issues were combined in a painting for the nation’s Capitol-a building in which such matters continue to be discussed today.
The author acknowledges the following for their generous help and assistance: Ann Alexander, Dr. Robert Bedford, Dan Hawks, Robert B. Mayo, Barbara Wolanin and the staff at the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, and the Yorktown-Jamestown Foundation in Virginia.
1 Pocahontas appears in Chapman’s mural discussed in this article, in the bas-relief by Antonio Capellano in Fig. 5, and in a frieze by Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880) entitled Captain Smith and Pocahontas, completed in 1878.
2 It has always been assumed that the baptism was performed in Henricus, Virginia, by the Reverend Alexander Whitaker, who had instructed Pocahontas in the Christian faith, and that it took place shortly before her marriage to Rolfe on April 5, 1614. However, documents in the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, including a letter from a descendant of the Reverend Richard Bucke, suggest that Pocahontas was baptized in Jamestown by Bucke shortly after her marriage. John Gadsby Chapman Files, Archives of the Architect of the Capitol, Washington.
3 Chapman met Wise when the two were roommates studying law in Winchester, Virginia.
4 Between 1822 and 1842 King created 143 paintings of Indians at the request of Thomas L. McKenney, the first director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Chapman undoubtedly met many of these tribal leaders in King’s studio in Washington when they came to conduct business with the government. In Washington it is also likely that he saw exhibitions of works by Catlin, who between 1830 and 1836 traveled extensively in the West and painted nearly 470 scenes of Indian life.
5 Chapman’s work was unveiled on November 30, 1840, followed by Weir’s Embarkation of the Pilgrims in 1843 and Vanderlyn’s Landing of Columbus in 1847. Inman died in 1846 without completing his work, which was replaced by The Discovery of the Mississippi, painted by his pupil William Henry Powell (c. 1824-1879) in 1855.
6 Register of Debates, House, 23 rd Congress, 2 nd session, December 15, 1834, quoted in Vivien Green Fryd, Art and Empire: The Politics of Ethnicity in the United States Capitol, 1815-1860 (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1992), p. 46.
7 John Gadsby Chapman, The Picture of the Baptism of Pocahontas: Painted by Order of Congress, for the Rotunda of the Capitol (Washington, 1840).
8 Ibid., p. 4.
10 Ibid., p. 5.
11 The so-called Turkey Island portrait was inherited by Ryland Randolph, a great-great-grandson of Pocahontas, from Rolfe descendants in England. He hung it in his family’s house at Turkey Island in the James River near Jamestown, Virginia. Thomas Sully encouraged his nephew Robert Matthew Sully (1803-1865) to make a copy of it in 1830.
12 In 1616 Pocahontas, Rolfe, their son Thomas, and several other Indians made a trip to England organized by the Virginia Company to help obtain financial support for their struggling colony. She was treated as a princess, entertained by the Anglican bishop of London, and introduced to England’s James I (r. 1603-1625) and his consort Queen Anne (1574-1619).
13 Chapman apologized for his inaccuracy in depicting the natives’ dress: “The naked limbs and costume of the savages-are matters of history which the artist has only followed with the best of his ability, and he only regrets it was not more worthy of the grandeur and beauty of the subject of the picture.” Chapman, The Picture of the Baptism of Pocahontas, p. 8.
14 The works were Eagle’s Delight or Hayne Hudjihini, which was destroyed by fire in 1865, and Young Omaha, War Eagle, Little Missourti and Pawnees, which is now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington. For various copies of Eagle’s Delight, see Andrew J. Cosentino, The Paintings of Charles Bird King (1785-1862) (National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, 1977), pp. 168-169.
15 Among these figures are Richard Wyffin and Henry Spillman, two men whose lives Pocahontas saved; Mrs. Forrest, whom Chapman identifies as the “first generation to arrive in the colony,” and Anne Burras (1590-1630), who came to the colony in 1608 as a maid for Mrs. Forrest, married a carpenter, John Laydon, in what is thought to have been the first recorded English wedding in America, and in 1609 had a child, Virginia, who is believed to have been the first child born in the colony.
16 Raphe Hamor, A True Discourse on the Present Estate of Virginia, and the Successe of the Affaires there till the 18 of [J]une 1614… (1615; reprint, Twin Commonwealth Publishers, Pikeville, Ky. and Baltville, Va., 2006).
17 These drawings are from Chapman’s sketchbook, which was discovered, along with his furniture, papers, journals, diaries, daybooks, and paintings, in the basement of a former Brooklyn residence of the artist’s son, Jack. Found in the mid-twentieth century by Robert B. Mayo, a former curator and art dealer from Virginia, much of this material remains in the Mayo collection. Chapman’s sketchbook and his oil study for his Rotunda painting are in the collection of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.
18 John Smith, quoted in Chapman, The Picture of the Baptism of Pocahontas, p. 6.
19 Ibid., pp. 6-7.
20 Photocopy of the Journal of B[enjamin]. B. French, November 16, 1840, John Gadsby Chapman Files.
21 John Gadsby Chapman’s Day Book, p. 79, Mayo collection.
22 William Kemble to Captain M.C. Meigs, Superintendent of the Capitol, February 3, 1853, John Gadsby Chapman Files.
23 John Gadsby Chapman Day Book, p. 77.
24 “Additional Memoranda” in ibid.
25 Chapman, The Picture of the Baptism of Pocahontas, p. 5.
FAITH ANDREWS BEDFORD is the author of Frank W. Benson, American Impressionist (1994) and The Sporting Art of Frank W. Benson (2000). See www.frankwbenson.com