Baptism of Pocahontas
Original Author: John Gadsby Chapman
Created: 1840
Medium: Oil on canvas
Publisher: Wikimedia Commons

Baptism of Pocahontas

Light shines on the kneeling figure of Pocahontas, daughter of the Virginia Indigenous chief Powhatan, and on Reverend Alexander Whitaker, the minister officiating at her baptism into the Christian faith. It is believed that Pocahontas was the first Native to convert to Christianity after the arrival of the English. The baptismal ceremony took place in Jamestown in 1613 or 1614, during which she was given the Christian name Rebecca and also revealed her secret native name, Matoaka. Her future husband, John Rolfe, is seen standing behind her. Others shown in the painting include Sir Thomas Dale, deputy governor of the colony, who stands to the left, dressed in armor. Members of Pocahontas's family are in evidence to the right: her brother Nantequaus, wearing tan robes and an elaborate headdress, turns away from the ceremony, while her uncle Opachisco, in rose-colored clothes, appears to be leaning in to listen. Another uncle, Opechancanough, remains seated and has a rather somber mien. Pocahontas's sister, wearing Indigenous clothing and cradling her infant in her lap, watches the proceedings while sitting on the floor.

This twelve-foot by eighteen-foot oil was painted by Virginia-born artist John Gadsby Chapman. In 1837 he was commissioned to create a large historical painting for the Rotunda in the U.S. Capitol, and he chose Pocahontas and her conversion as his subject. The church in Jamestown where Pocahontas had been baptized no longer stood, so Chapman travelled in England and America to seek out similar 17th-century structures. In the midst of completing the portrait he lost two children; he also suffered under the strain of financial worries. When he finally received payment for the finished portrait he noted in a journal that the money he received was "barely equivalent to its cost" to him. The painting was installed in the Rotunda in 1840.