Pocahontas and John Smith

Artist: Victor Nehlig
Pocahontas and John Smith, a painting

Victor Nehlig (1830-1909), Pocahontas and John Smith, 1870, oil on canvas.

Commentary by Dennis Cutchins
Associate Professor of English


The Historical and Cultural Background of the Image

In 1606 the Virginia Company, a private colonization company with a charter from King James of England, sent colonists from England to North America to establish a colonial settlement. They constructed James Fort at the mouth of the James River in the spring and summer of 1607. Ill-suited to the hard work of colonization, only a handful of the original colonists would survive more than a year, but one of those men was John Smith. Smith is a figure who looms large in American history. Though something of a rogue and an unabashed self-promoter, Smith was a capable and talented leader. One of the most important things he managed to accomplish during his short time in the settlement was to established good relations with the aging Wahunsunacawh, leader of the Powhatan Confederacy of tribes, and known to history simply as Powhatan. The story of the meeting of these two men has become one of the foundational stories of American history. In Dec of 1607, after only a few months in North American, the British settlers at James Fort, later to become Jamestown, were struggling to survive. John Smith and a handful of men left the fort to explore the coast and gather food. This “gathering” included raiding Native American food stores, and this of course irritated members of the local Algonquin speaking Paspahegh Tribe. Smith was captured and eventually taken to Powhatan. But that’s where things get a little murky.

It’s not clear, for instance, if the famous events depicted in this painting actually took place. Smith published two accounts of meeting Powhatan, one in 1608 in a pamphlet titled A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Have Happened in Virginia, and one in 1624 in the longer work, The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. In the first account there is no mention of a threat to his life when he met Powhatan. This omission might be explained by the fact that Smith was writing to encourage setters to join the colony and thus he deemphasized the potential danger of living in North America. In the 1624 version of the story Smith takes a scant half-dozen lines to describe his threatened execution and timely rescue by Powhatan’s 12-year-old daughter, Pocahontas, or Matoaka as she was likely known by her family.

In 1609 Smith was injured in an accident and left Virginia to recover in England. In 1613, during a conflict between the colonists and the Native Americans Pocahontas was captured by the colonists and held for ransom. While in captivity she converted to Christianity and changed her name to Rebecca. In 1614 she married John Rolfe, a wealthy British planter, and in 1615 the couple had a son named Thomas. In June of 1616 Pocahontas, now Rebecca Rolfe, and her husband visited England on something of a PR campaign for the colony. She and Smith met briefly, and Smith wrote a letter to Queen Anne asking that Mrs. Rolfe be well-received. In the letter Smith recounts his rescue in these words, “at the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown.” Smith concludes his letter by reminding the queen that Britain “may rightly have a Kingdom by her means.” Virginia, he suggests here, was largely secured for England because of Pocahontas.

In his letter to the Queen Smith attributes to Pocahontas not simply the saving of his life, but the literal saving of the Jamestown colony, and perhaps the rescue of the entire colonial enterprise. This is the seed of what we might call the Pocahontas myth. When Nehlig created this painting in 1870, more than 250 years after the events it depicts, Pocahontas’s rescue of Smith, real or imagined, had become, at least in retrospect, a turning point in American history. The reality of the historical events had largely been replaced by the mythic tale of a bold adventurer rescued from death by a beautiful native princess. This story seemed, somehow, to justify British colonization, and has since become fixed in the popular imagination. Pocahontas came to represent one of the oldest North American stereotypes, that of the “Indian Princess” who marries a white man. She became the living connection between white colonists and Native Americans, and her saving of Smith and marriage to Rolfe seemed to sanctify and legitimize the colonization that had taken place.


The Painting Itself

Some other persistent Native American stereotypes are clear in this painting. Notice, for instance, the skin colors of the major figures. The two men holding Smith, along with Powhatan, have, as Smith later reported, “all their heads and shoulders painted red.” But paint aside, Pocahontas is still the lightest-skinned Native American figure in the painting. Her facial features, too, are more European than the other Native American figures. Compare, for example, her face to the woman just above her in the painting. Nehlig seems to suggest by his depiction of Pocahontas that she is “enlightened,” both literally and figuratively.

The composition of the painting focuses our attention directly on Pocahontas. Nehlig has placed her figure on the “golden mean,” just to the left of center on the canvas, where a viewer’s eyes are naturally drawn. And he has placed her in front of some white smoke which gives a kind of halo effect to her, highlighted by the fact that many of the other figures in the painting seem to be in a kind of murky twilight. There is evidence, however, that Nehlig changed his mind about the placement of Pocahontas. Do you notice anything that might indicate that she is in a different position than Nehlig intended when he painted the figure of John Smith?

As he did when he painted other Native American subjects, Nehlig paid special attention to the cultural details and costumes of the Native American figures. Notice, for instance, what the little boy standing just above Pocahontas seems to be playing with? The painted faces and feathered headgear found in the painting are all features that Smith described in his narratives. But Nehlig ignored at least one aspect of Smith’s description. Smith mentions that Powhatan was wearing a robe “made of Rarowcun skinnes, and all the tayles hanging by.” Perhaps Nehlig thought that a raccoon skin robe with the tails still attached would give the painting an unintended levity.


About the Artist

Victor Nehlig was a French artist who came to the United States in 1850. He often painted famous moments in history, including scenes from the Crusades, from the Battle of New Orleans, and from the American Civil War. Nelig loved painting grand spectacles, but his focus is almost always on the particular human figure, and that is certainly evident here. Like many artists in the 19th Century, Nelig was intrigued with Native American subjects, and tended to depict Native Americans in what may be considered romantic poses including a painting of Native American men carrying off their brides.


Click here to read Professor Cheryl B. Preston’s response


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