Baptism of Pocahontas, Rotunda, U.S. Capitol.
 Chapman, J. G. (John Gadsby), 1808-1889

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Title:Baptism of Pocahontas, Rotunda, U.S. Capitol

"This painting depicts the ceremony in which Pocahontas, daughter of the influential Algonkian chief Powhatan, was baptized and given the name Rebecca in an Anglican church. It took place in 1613 or 1614 in the colony at Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement on the North American continent. Pocahontas is thought to be the earliest native convert to Christianity in the English colonies; this ceremony and her subsequent marriage to John Rolfe helped to establish peaceful relations between the colonists and the Tidewater tribes.

The figures of Pocahontas and the officiating minister are given prominence by their placement, their bright white clothing, and the light that shines upon them. Pocahontas kneels on the top level of a stepped dais, her head bowed and her hands clasped before her. Reverend Alexander Whiteaker raises his eyes and his left hand, while his right hand rests on the baptismal font. John Rolfe, Pocahontas’s future husband, stands behind her.

Other colonists and members of Pocahontas’s family look on, displaying a range of emotions. At the left of the painting, Sir Thomas Dale, deputy governor of the colony, has risen from his chair near the font to observe the event. Pocahontas’s regally dressed brother, Nantequaus, turns away from the ceremony as her uncle Opachisco leans in from the right. The seated, brooding figure of another uncle, Opechankanough, turns completely away from the ceremony while Pocahontas’s sister, with an infant, watches from the floor.

Chapman received the commission for the Rotunda painting in 1837 and selected Pocahontas as its subject. He may have chosen to paint her baptism because he had already (in 1836) completed a scene that showed her more widely depicted rescue of John Smith. Seeking to depict the scene of this ceremony accurately, Chapman traveled in England and America to examine objects and buildings from the early seventeenth century. Because the Jamestown church had since been torn down, he based his setting on a church that he believed to be of similar age and incorporated features appropriate to the colony, such as the pine columns; many details were based on a written description by a Jamestown resident.

Chapman created this painting in Washington, D.C., in the loft of a barn on G Street, N.W. His life during the time in which he worked on it was marked by great sadness and misfortune: his son died in February 1838, and two weeks later his daughter was born prematurely and survived only ten hours. He was also under mounting pressure from debts and worked quickly on the canvas to collect his payment; after completing it he noted in his day book that the money he received from the government for the painting was “barely equivalent to its cost” to him. The painting was delivered to the Capitol and installed in November 1840." []

Artist:Chapman, J. G. (John Gadsby), 1808-1889
Building:Rotunda, United States Capitol
Country:United States

Lectionary links:BEast06
General Subject:Baptism
Culture: Native American

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Attribution:Chapman, J. G. (John Gadsby), 1808-1889. Baptism of Pocahontas, Rotunda, U.S. Capitol, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved April 13, 2021]. Original source:
Record Number:55207 Last Updated: 2021-04-09 09:51:28 Record Created: 2012-03-03 17:46:40
Institution:Vanderbilt University Unit: Collection: Art in the Christian Tradition