Image 46

Figure 1: “Pocahontas Saving the Life of Capt. John Smith”

“Pocahontas Saving the Life of Capt. John Smith” [Image 46] first appeared in 1866 in an expanded version of the History of the United States. Coming close to fulfilling William Gilmore Simms’s challenge to American artists to find a way to “stamp the [Pocahontas] story in life-like colours upon the canvas,” it is a noticeable improvement in terms of conveying action and drama over Croome’s “Pocahontas Rescuing John Smith.” Unlike, Croome’s flat and static two-dimensional treatment of the subject, Chappel’s image caught the “crisis in the fortunes of the scene” when “the struggle is at its height” and captured with the “heavy stroke of death” permeating the episode. Chappel’s characters are more modeled and three-dimensional than those of Croome, and they exude much of the raw passion and even sexuality many Pocahontas narrators (including Smith himself) had brought to their descriptions of the rescue episode.

Not everyone approved of Chappel’s provocative image, however. His bare-breasted Pocahontas sparked controversy in Virginia, for instance, where defenders of the Lost Cause were rebelling against the image of Southerners as maudlin and lurid beings who indulged their desires for miscegenation with titillating stories of interracial relationships. Hoping to rehabilitate Pocahontas from a  “demeaning” sensual creature to a nobler “Lady Rebecca,” such guardians of Southern culture rejected Chappel’s imagery as immoral and ahistorical. But many in the North accepted the representation as a reliable portrayal of the dishonorable sensationalism they imagined at the heart of Southern life. Chappel’s juxtaposition of “raw masculine ferocity and female vulnerability” [69] certainly encouraged such politically charged interpretations.

[69] Ann Uhry Abrams, Pilgrims and Pocahontas: Rival Myths of American Origin (Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press, 1999), 60-61.