Images of a Legend

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1836-40, John Gadsby Chapman

Pocahontas stars in an even more significant piece of art in the U.S. Capitol rotunda: John Gadsby Chapman's monumental, 12-by-17-foot mural. Chapman received the prestigious commission in 1836 and researched his subject exhaustively. But the scant historical record and, more critically, Chapman's cultural prejudices led to a largely imaginary scene. A Virginian himself, Chapman may have chosen the subject, in part, to respond to New Englanders of the day who argued that their "Pilgrim" forefathers established the moral foundations of the republic. In his painting, Virginia's founders are given credit for their missionary effort: Pocahontas, sanctified in a white dress and kneeling like the Virgin Mary, renounces her Powhatan ways. In a pamphlet on his painting, Chapman noted that Jamestown's colonists did not "exterminate the ancient proprietors of the soil, and usurp their possessions." Rather, they spread "the blessings of Christianity among the heathen savages."

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