Chapman's Baptism of Pocahontas 1840
                                                                The Baptism of Pocahontas
                                                         painted by John Gadsby Chapman, 1840
Stephen Tompkins
Lehigh University
Each Pocahontas link in the text below will take you to a different Pocahontas website
    In 1836 John Gadsby Chapman, a Virginia artist, received the commission to paint one of four historical murals illustrating the pre-history of the United States that would decorate the unadorned panels of the rotunda of the Capitol building, in Washington D.C.. His choice for the subject of the colossal oil on canvas measuring 12' by 18' was The Baptism of Pocahontas, for which he was paid $10,000. The myth of the Indian Princess' rescue of John Smith, her eventual marriage to John Rolfe, and her journey to England were already the stuff of legend. Indeed, Robert Tilton contends Victor Nehlig's Pocahontas and John Smiththat by the mid-Nineteenth Century the rescue had become "the best known visual image of Pocahontas" (94). Curious, then, that Chapman should decide to depict Pocahontas' entry into the Christian faith as the defining experience of her life/legend. Why would an early 19th Century artist pick this particular representation to grace the rotunda? What cultural forces may have prompted such a selection? And what cultural message does the artist's rendering hold for visitors to our nation's Capitol building?
    The interior of the Rotunda is comprised of eight panels that contain paintings portraying seminal moments in our nation's history. By 1824 four of these panels had been completed. John Trumbull was responsible for these paintings, each of which depicted a key event during the War for Independence: the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, the Surrender of General Burgoyne, George Washington Resigning his Commission, and the Signing of the Declaration of Independence. The mandate of the  Select Committee to the House of Representatives concerning the remaining Rotunda panels was that the subjects should serve "to illustrate the discovery of America, the settlement of the United States, the history of the revolution, or the adoption of the Constitution" (Tilton 104). The resulting commissions were issued to John Vanderlyn (Landing of Columbus), William Powell (DeSoto's Discovery of the Mississippi), Robert Weir (Embarkation of the Pilgrims) and John Chapman (Baptism of Pocahontas).
        Chapman's selection of Pocahontas' entry into the Christian faith certainly falls within the boundaries of the Congressional mandate, but one wonders why he would choose this particular moment in her biography, especially since the most prominent portion of the mythology surrounding Powhatan's daughter involves her dramatic rescue of John Smith. It may be that Chapman, a budding and ambitious painter of the period, was attempting to venture into unexplored artistic territory by depicting the baptism of Pocahontas. In a letter written to Henry Wise, a friend of Chapman's and a Congressman from Virginia, Chapman mentions that there are "some subjects of thrilling incident connected with our history untouched, [and] as far as I know unmentioned" (Tilton 104).
    A desire to tap unmined resources concerning the artistic representations of the Pocahontas legend may have been particularly appealing to Chapman when one considers that, by this time, his body of work already included a number of scenes concerning the founding of Jamestown, including The First Ship, The Landing at Jamestown, The Crowning of Powhatan, and his own version of the rescue, Pocahontas Saving the Life of Captain John Smith. Tilton claims that Chapman's selection of prototypical subject matter may have been prompted by the fact that he wouldn't have to fear negative comparisons to other artists' efforts, and his display of originality could also have been a bid to elevate himself in artistic circles since there was "no dominant historical painter in mid-nineteenth century America" (120). Furthermore, the Capitol was already in possession of a work of art that depicted the rescue of Smith by Pocahontas: an 1825 relief by Antonio Capellano, which is located over the west door of the Rotunda.
        Chapman's intentions are documented in a pamphlet written by the artist and published by Peter Force in 1840 that describes in detail the painting and the research that accompanied its composition. According to the Force pamphlet, Pocahontas is a most appropriate subject for a mural designed to commemorate the history and actions of our ancestors:  Our nation is often referred to as having a "Puritan ethic." As Peter Hulme observes, one of the main planks of the ideology of Puritanism was "the establishment of a very clear division between civilization and savagery" (139). The Baptism of Pocahontas serves to bridge the gap between the tenets of Christianity and "barbarous idolatry"; the ceremony enshrines the Indian Princess as Mary Webster Mosby's "connecting link between two hemispheres" through her ritual passage into the fold of civility.

        And why would this notion of a woman's break with her native past prove appealing to Chapman and his contemporaries? Perhaps because it falls in beautifully with the domestic policy of our nation during this period. This was the time of major westward expansion, "Manifest Destiny," and the native inhabitants who stood in the way were forced to either submit and assimilate, or they were eliminated. While Chapman was busy painting his mural for the Rotunda, United States troops were engaged in fighting the Seminole Indians of Florida as well as "relocating" the Cherokee nation in a journey the history books refer to as "The Trail of Tears." The consensus among most art historians and cultural critics is that the hegemony of "white civilization," which became America's inheritance, is visually captured in Chapman's mural. Hulme has argued that the artist's agenda is evident; by "shrewdly choosing the moment when European ritual symbolized her [Pocahontas] rejection of her own culture and her incorporation into the ranks of the saved," Chapman illustrates the submission of the native American to European religion and the birth of the doctrine of "manifest destiny" (170).

        Matthew Baigell comments on the ideological ramifications of Chapman's painting, claiming the mural is "especially interesting, even insidious....the painting portrays native Americans cooperating in the destruction of their own culture. If this painting has one subtext it is that white religion, namely Christianity, represents civilization and that native Americans become acceptable only by becoming Christian and accepting white values and customs" (8). Despite the laudatory proclamations asserted by Chapman in the Force pamphlet, it appears that his efforts to immortalize Pocahontas are little more than rhetorical slight of hand. What is being immortalized is her submission to the conquering Caucasian, a sight surely reassuring to a nation poised to claim the rest of the continent and, if necessary, eradicate any locals who stood in the way.

        Gender issues also come into play in Chapman's painting. Certainly, the image of a kneeling andBooten Hall portrait of Pocahontas repentant Pocahontas would be more palatable in terms of traditional mid-nineteenth century gender roles. Unlike the images of Pocahontas' rescue of John Smith, images that illustrate an heroic and active woman "with the fortitude to challenge her father, who was figurative head of her nation" (Tilton 130), Chapman's choice of subject results in the depiction of a passive and submissive recipient, a figure more in keeping with conventional depictions of women and surely more of a piece with the rest of the paintings gracing the ceiling of the Capitol building; there's hardly a woman to be seen in any of the eight murals covering the walls of the Rotunda. Some scenes contain no women at all, while in others they are background or ancillary figures, such as those in the crowd as Washington resigns his comission, the praying Pilgrim women aboard the Speedwell, or the beautiful, half-naked women fearfully watching the advance of DeSoto. In her more passive persona, Chapman's Pocahontas clearly qualifies for inclusion into this male-dominated collection (Tilton 130).

        The depiction of Pocahontas' induction into the Christian faith may serve to salve the conscience of any white man who may have second thoughts about the eventual fate of the American Indian. As Tilton notes, the painting serves to "mitigate the guilt that contemporary white audiences might have felt about the impending destruction of uncooperative native cultures because the survival of the Indians had been symbolically assured" (137). Additionally, the mural provides a repayment of the debt owed to Pocahontas for the rescue of John Smith and the survival of colonial Jamestown. Tilton states, "In effect the sacrament of baptism evened the score with Pocahontas: indeed, it put her in debt of Christian Anglo-Americans for the gift of possible eternal salvation that they had chosen to share. Chapman's painting also reinforced the comforting notion that the benefits of white culture were available to good Indians if they chose to take advantage of them, and served to alienate whites further from bad Indians" (128). Again, the forces of manifest destiny are at work here. Chapman's painting offers inclusion for those Native Americans willing to sacrifice their traditional beliefs, but these conversions are as effective a means of white imperialism and expansionism as any Indian reservation or Winchester rifle.
  A closer analysis of Chapman's painting and the accompanying Force pamphlet proves useful in Rebecca window, St George's Church, Gravesend, Englanddecoding the artist's attempts at pictorially reproducing white hegemonic discourse. First, it must be acknowledged that Chapman's vision with regards to the actual baptismal ceremony is based primarily on speculation since there are no eyewitness accounts of the event. However, there are several documents that indicate the event did take place. To Chapman's credit, he conducted a survey of these documents  before commencing with the painting. Although Georgia Chamberlain informs us that "the romantic rather than the modern scientific approach to the study of Indians was the mood of Chapman's day" (19), the artist nevertheless elected to consult the available historical sources and even made a trip to England where he studied the armor and costume that was prevalent during the reign of James I. "He made a sketch of a chair of raised velvet of the time of James I in the great Tudor palace at Sevenoaks, Kent, England, which he used in the left foreground of his mural" (20). The Force pamphlet cites a list of literary sources consulted by Chapman before and during the composition of the rotunda mural including: A Discourse of the Southerne Colonie of Virginia by the English by Master George Percy; Purchas his Pilgrimes; and John Smith, Description of Virginia, travels and adventures by Ralph Hamor, the Younger. It should also be noted that none of the literature devoted to the composition of the portrait mentions any effort on the part of the artist to research Indian history or artifacts. The historical accuracy sought by Chapman was only concerned with the European colonial viewpoint. Of course, it would have been difficult if not impossible to incorporate Native American testimonials about this event owing to the fact that the Indians did not produce or keep written records of their history. But, as I stated earlier, Chapman's intentions were to place Pocahontas within the mythology of white America and therefore any concerns about accurately portraying indigenous culture or viewpoints was never exhibited.
    Rasmussen and Tilton argue that Chapman took large liberties in at least two major portions of the composition. "First, wherever in Virginia the baptism took place, it would have been held in a church that was small, built of wood, and designed with little architectural distinction"(25). The massive pillars and the ornate quality of Chapman's monumental edifice is clearly hyperbolic but may suggest his attempt to impart the proper dignity to the ceremony depicted. Clearly, most of the detail in the setting emphasizes European couture, architecture, and ambience (right down to the hour-glass and the pulpit cloth embroidered with the Arms of Virginia and the initials of King James). Second, Samuel Purchas recorded in Purchas his Pilgrimes that two of Powhatan's sons and the uncle were present at her wedding but says nothing about their presence at the baptism, an event perhaps less likely to have won the favor of her family (1768). Rasmussen and Tilton conclude that "Chapman had no basis for including any Indians other than Pocahontas, but, because the problematic relationship between Anglo-Americans and Indians was one of the crucial themes of his work, other native figures had to be included " (26). Apparently they are referring to the paradoxical nature of our earliest settler's experiences and the current government's dealings with the Native Americans; it was difficult to balance a policy of manifest destiny alongside a Christian ethos that preached inclusion and tolerance.
     Upon examination of the primary figures in Chapman's mural, one immediately notices how Pocahontas is bathed in a divine spotlight that accentuates the immaculate white dress she wears as she kneels before the baptismal font. Her diaphanous clothes are covered with ethereal rays Pocahontasthat seem to have a heavenly origin, and the similarity between Pocahontas' pose and traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary at the Nativity are unmistakable. The color of her dress also serves to highlight the fact that Pocahontas' skin tone is lighter (re: more acceptable) than the other Indians in the painting. It would appear the conversion process has even affected her personal pigmentation. The pamphlet states that "Rolfe supported his destined bride to the rude baptismal font, hewn from the oak of her native forest" (6). She has been led to the Christian altar by the white colonizer where she bows in willing submission before God's representative, in a Church hacked out of the primitive wilderness. As Rasmussen and Tilton note, "Locked visually within the English group...Pocahontas seems already absorbed into English culture and religion and thereby free of the Indian civilization to which she has [literally] turned her back"(26).
         The other Indians portrayed in Chapman's painting bear closer analysis. Figure 1 below, is Nantequaua, the brother of Pocahontas, whom John Smith called "the most manliest, comliest, boldest spirit he ever saw in a Savage" (Hamor). Notice that his head is held high as he looks away from the conversion of his sister, as if unable to witness her acceptance of Christianity and, by extension, European culture. It is a subversive moment, a site of resistance. The pamphlet informs us that the Indian girl seated on the floor of the Church [Figure 2], holding a child, is an elder sister of Pocahontas, who watches with "mute, anxious interest and curiosity"(21). The morose Indian sitting to the right of Pocahontas' sister [Figure 3] is "her uncle the sullen, cunning yet daring

 Nantequaua Pocahontas' sister
                  Figure 1                                                                           Figure 2

Opechankanough                                                                                         Figure 3

Opechankanough, shrunk back, and probably even then brooding over the deep laid plan of massacre which he so fearfully executed years after, when the spotless Indian girl had gone to reap her reward in heaven" (21). No mention is made of the atrocities suffered by the Indians at the hands of the settlers that may have prompted this massacre. Peter Hulme suggests that Chapman's painting is "the final resolution of the problematic third term, a severance of niece and uncle, available female and hostile male, 'good' Indian and 'bad' Indian" (170). Indeed, we are presented with an interesting juxtaposition of the demon and the saint, an Indian dichotomy that haunts many literary and artistic representations of the native American.
        The pamphlet's description of The Baptism of Pocahontas continues with an account that seems oddly paranoid in tone:

It is almost as if at the moment of supreme supplication, the phantasm of Indian hostility appears as a challenge to white hegemony and must be dealt with forcefully and brutally. These Indians won't go quietly and subjugation in the face of superior fire power is a specter that infuses the portrait, or at least the pamphlet's description of it. The painting is a curious blending of faith and force, Christian doctrine and conqueror's dogma, the angelic as well as the demonic.

        One can assume that such a painting would never survive the scrutiny of any selecting committee in these politically correct times. But it is interesting to note the reception of Chapman's mural was mixed when it was unveiled in December of 1840. Aesthetic notions of the period stressed a romanticism and sentimentality that Chapman may have flaunted in his search for accuracy. A critic in the Daily National Intelligencer was disappointed that Pocahontas was not more idealistically beautiful. "There is clearly a want of grace in the attitude and of expression in the countenance. Her features are neither beautiful nor exactly Indian; nor does her bust possess that elegance and gracefulness of outline which characterizes female beauty.... The subject appears to have been an unfortunate one for an historical painting, being more local and individual than national" (Tilton 121). The first portion of this criticism is of an aesthetic nature and demonstrates that Chapman's portrayal of Pocahontas was perceived as wanting with regards to current Victorian standards. The latter complaint concerning the unsuitability of the artist's subject is an interesting criticism in that it evinces a regional bias. Rasmussen and Tilton claim that the selection of a local heroine was a conscious and calculated choice on Chapman's part.

     As a Virginian, Chapman had long been interested in the history of his home state and, as noted earlier, had used Pocahontas and other Indian subjects in paintings illustrating the colonization of Virginia. In addition, there were "some Virginians during this period who desired to challenge the claims made by New Englanders that their Pilgrim forefathers had established the intellectual and moral foundations of the American republic, while the South had contributed virtually nothing of value, and, in slavery, much that was harmful. By depicting a scene from the story of Pocahontas, Chapman could remind visitors to the nation's Capitol that Virginia's history was actually older than that of New England, and no less vital to the establishment of the United States. Also, by portraying this incident Chapman could give the Virginia founders credit for their own, rarely acknowledged, missionary errand" (26). As Chapman states in the Force pamphlet, the Jamestown colonists left their homeland neither for the purpose of exterminating the indigenous population of America nor to usurp their possessions; rather, they came with a "sincere and fervent desire to spread the blessings of Christianity among the heathen savages" (3). Judging from these remarks and Chapman's background, it could be argued that The Baptism of Pocahontas was an attempt to further the political ends and historical legacy of the South.
        For an age that, at least in theory, saw the continuing domination of North America as a christianizing as well as a civilizing process, Chapman's theme would have been ideologically attractive. The critic commenting in the Intelligencer was answered a few days later by a writer who refuted the claim that the subject of the painting was not national. "The first barbarian brought to the knowledge of the Living God!... I am far from being a religious man, but my nature is bowed down when that consecrated scene is presented to me. I see through the lapse of time... all assembled to witness a scene that God himself, turning from the rotten pomp of the old World, must have blessed with this peculiar notice" (Tilton 121). One suspects that the anonymous letter speaks for the artist.
        Chapman's painting and pamphlet, despite being an earnest effort to recreate the first baptism (according to legend) of an Indian that took place in America , used the idiom of his day, a romantic and spiritual idealism that can also be read as window dressing for an underlying white hegemonic discourse. With the eventual genocide that became most Indians' fate, perhaps the epigram by Mary Webster Mosby that begins this article would read more accurately if it said:

Works Cited
Baigell, Matthew. "Territory, Race, Religion: Images of Manifest Destiny,"   Smithsonian   Studies in American Art, Summer/Fall, 1990, 3-19.

Chamberlain, Georgia Stamm. Studies on John Gadsby Chapman; American artist, 1808-1889, Alexandria, Va. 1963.

Chapman, John Gadsby. The picture of the baptism of Pocahontas painted by order of Congress, for the rotundo of the Capitol, Washington: Peter Force, 1840.

Hamor, Ralph. A True Discourse of the present State of Virginia. London: Printed by John Beale for William Welby, 1615.

Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters : Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797,  New York : Methuen, 1986.

Purchas, Samuel. Purchas his Pilgrimes, London, Printed by W. Stansby for H. Fetherstone, 1625.

Rasmussen, William and Robert Tilton, Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend, Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1995.

Tilton, Robert. Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

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Created on August 5, 1998 by Stephen Tompkins, Graduate student, Lehigh University. Stephen would like to thank Dr. Gallagher and Hal Halbert as well as Dean Krause and Steven Lichak(the boys in the media center) for their invaluable help and advice during the construction of this page.