Pocahontas Revealed

Images of a Legend

Ask any eight-year-old girl in America who Susan B. Anthony was and you'll likely get a blank stare. But mention Pocahontas and the child's face will light up, no doubt with a vision of Disney's beautiful "princess" dancing in her mind. Few figures in American history are as legendary. For 400 years, playwrights and moviemakers, painters and sculptors, toy manufacturers and tobacco sellers have portrayed Pocahontas, shaping her appearance and narrative to suit their own purposes. To explore the wide-ranging representations and compare myth to verifiable history, the Virginia Historical Society, led by curators William Rasmussen and Robert Tilton, assembled more than 40 paintings, prints, drawings, sheet music, and other objects. Below, see a sampling of their remarkable exhibit. For more background on their endeavor, read the introduction from Rasmussen and Tilton's exhibit catalog.—Susan K. Lewis

Rock's Peony
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1616, Simon van de Passe

This engraving is the only known portrait of Pocahontas rendered from life. During her stay in England, Dutch engraver Simon van de Passe captured her likeness and recorded that she, like the artist himself, was 21 years old. It was the first of many depictions of Pocahontas intended to demonstrate that a Native American could adopt the demeanor of a "civilized" European. The Virginia Company—backers of the Jamestown settlement—likely commissioned the engraving with this in mind, hoping to attract more colonists and investors. The image also promotes the false impression that she was a princess in the European sense; the inscription describes her as the daughter of a mighty emperor, and the ostrich feather in her hand is a symbol of royalty. But this engraving offers a sound estimate of Pocahontas's true appearance.

Dawn Redwood
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likely 1700s, unknown English artist

This widely exhibited oil painting, now part of the National Portrait Gallery's collection, veers from the 1616 de Passe engraving in telling ways. Made long after Pocahontas's death, the painting bears text (out of sight here) that mistakenly calls her the wife of Thomas, rather than John, Rolfe. Subtler, yet perhaps more meaningful, distortions exist as well. Her dark skin and black hair have become white and brown respectively, and her facial features more delicate. She retains the chaste, high-necked Jacobian costume of the engraving (which may have covered the real Pocahontas's tattoos), but her jacket is softer and more feminine. Altogether, she seems closer to an 18th-century European ideal of beauty than a 17th-century Powhatan Indian.

Fortune's Rhododendron
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1590, Theodor de Bry (after John White)

If she had never been abducted and married into English culture, how would Pocahontas have appeared as a young woman? What did she look like as an adolescent, when John Smith first encountered her? A hint of the answers may lie in this colored engraving based on watercolors done by John White, an English artist and explorer who lived among native Virginians in 1585-86, roughly a decade before Pocahontas's birth. According to White's images and related text, a Powhatan girl wore no clothing before puberty. From about the age of 12 onward, she donned a deerskin skirt, perhaps decorated with beads or carved with figures from nature. Powhatan women also adorned themselves with tattoos and body paint derived from roots, as well as necklaces, bracelets, and earrings strung with freshwater pearls, shell beads, copper, animal teeth, or beads of bone.

Dove Tree
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1624, Robert Vaughan

While its artistry is crude at best, this small engraving is a landmark in the Pocahontas legend: the first visual representation of the famous, and still hotly debated, story of her "rescue" of John Smith. The engraving was published in Smith's Generall Historie, where the self-promoting adventurer recorded the event, 17 years after it supposedly took place. The artist attempts to be faithful to Smith's account: "Two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him [Smith, here writing about himself in the third person], dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death: whereat the Emperour was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper."

Primula Wilsonii
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1825, Antonio Capellano

In the 200 years following Smith's Generall Historie, other representations of Pocahontas and the "rescue" were concocted, but it wasn't until the early 19th century that her status as a mythic figure took flight. This sandstone carving in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda is a case in point. By 1825, the rescue of Smith had been popularized in romantic novels, biographical dictionaries, and dramas such as The Indian Princess. It had also been placed within the chain of events leading to the founding of the American republic, so it seemed a fitting subject for the capitol building. Sculptor Antonio Capellano made his relief simple and bold to ensure the story was readily identifiable in the sculpture's location high above the western door of the rotunda.

Regal Lily
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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."

Paperback Maple
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early 1850s, J. W. Glass

A decade after the unveiling of Chapman's celebrated Baptism, a young portrait painter named James William Glass hoped to play on Chapman's success with his own, more modest painting. His Pocahontas and John Rolfe resemble those in Chapman's mural, and he depicts a foundational event for the baptism—Rolfe's tutelage of his future wife. But in this painting, as in many other portrayals of Pocahontas in the 19th century and beyond, she has become the heroine in a romance; both she and Rolfe appear more interested in each other than in the crucifix to which he gestures.

Peach Tree
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c. 1868, S. L. Hill (manufacturer)

Many children in the 19th century, like those of today, learned some version of the Pocahontas legend in their history lessons. They also saw her depicted in storybooks such as The Royal Illuminated Book of Legends (Edinburgh, 1872) and on toys like this jigsaw puzzle made of 20 wooden blocks with colored paper surfaces. An inscription on the box of the puzzle dates it to 1868, but the image of Pocahontas's marriage derives from a popular engraving published in New York, London, and Edinburgh in 1855.

China Rose
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1870, Christian Inger (after Edward Corbould)

While some 19th-century images of Pocahontas highlighted her marriage to John Rolfe, countless others focused instead on her feelings toward John Smith. Most historians doubt that a full-fledged romance ever existed between Pocahontas and Smith, but this notion was widely spread in the early 19th century, sparked by writer John Davis, who transformed Pocahontas into the heroine of an elaborate romantic narrative. This 1870 lithograph shows a Pocahontas typical of such representations—Europeanized and overly nubile for an adolescent girl. It also bears inaccuracies common in late 19th-century artwork, when headdresses, horses, and tepees (the latter not seen in this detail), which are trappings of Western Plains cultures, became generic icons for all "Indians."

Hardy Impatiens
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1852, Thomas Sully

This regal portrait, painted by the renowned artist Thomas Sully, seemed a fitting treatment of the woman who had come to be called the "mother" of the nation by the 1850s. Southerners in particular claimed Pocahontas as a progenitor; indeed, her descendants through her son Thomas Rolfe were among the most prominent families in the South. In Sully's portrait, Pocahontas's features are more Mediterranean than Powhatan, but this image of her became one of the best known and most copied. It was even adapted for the banner of a Confederate militia unit that called itself the "Guard of the Daughters of Powhatan."

Hardy Impatiens
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1994, Mary Ellen Howe

After nearly four centuries of mythmaking, could Pocahontas's true appearance be resurrected? Virginia portrait artist Mary Ellen Howe hoped that it could, and she spent six years researching and producing what may be the most accurate portrait of Pocahontas that can be painted. Howe's starting point was de Passe's 1616 engraving, but unlike the painter of the copy made in the 1700s, she made certain that the colors of her work were appropriate: Pocahontas's beaver hat is white, her hair black, and her skin tone modeled after that of Pamunkey, Mattoponi, and Rappahannock Indians. As she studied the facial structures of modern Virginia Indians, Howe noticed the same overbite, dimpled chin, and high cheekbones that van de Passe saw in Pocahontas. Asked why she devoted herself to this endeavor, Howe explains that she could not forget a woman whose extraordinary accomplishments included the adoption of a foreign culture and the winning of acceptance by 17th-century English society.

Hardy Impatiens
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1995, Walt Disney Studios

With Disney's release of the animated feature Pocahontas, a new incarnation of her is now familiar to a vast worldwide audience. Some critics have argued that Disney's "princess" is older than the Powahatan girl John Smith would have encountered, that the romance between them is fanciful, and that the depiction of her strays from historical reality in other ways. If so, it is in keeping with a long tradition. Like other artists, the writers and animators behind the film integrate elements of fantasy with historical facts, and they reflect cultural biases of their own time. They both capitalize on her legend and pay tribute to her as an individual of unusual energy and vision who influenced the course of history.


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