Captain Smith by Pocahontas
Antonio Capellano's sculpture The Preservation of Captain Smith by Pocahontas (1825) is still in the Capitol Rotunda along with other works of the same period such as William Penn's Treaty with the Indians and The Landing of the Pilgrims, although they no longer resonate with audiences in the same way as they did in the 19th Century. In the 20th and 21st Centuries, more sophisticated and educated viewers at least would realize that these are all the product of an era of Western expansion and a highly romanticized view of history that is heavily tinged with racism and white nationalism. When these sculptures were first commissioned by the U.S. government, the early republic was engaged in westward expansion that would result in the destruction, displacement or removal of most Native Americans, a process that most white Americans of the era regarded as necessary and beneficial. All of the official public art and sculpture of the time adhered strictly to the standard narrative of the progress of Christianity and white civilization, which would overawe and overpower the Indians. Native American would literally be forced to bow down to the superior power, drive and intelligence of this white civilization, which Pocahontas is depicted as recognizing when she saves Smith from being clubbed to death. She realizes that the only real choice for the Natives is to adapt and assimilate to the white world or face eventual destruction. In addition, she also accepts that Smith is a heroic white man, physically, intellectually and sexually superior to Indian males, although in the 19th Century this was also highly problematic because of the implication of interracial sex, 'half-breed' offspring and miscegenation of the races.
Sculpture and paintings depicting American Indians in the 19th Century followed certain predictable themes and patterns, particularly the idea of the destruction and disappearance of a supposedly inferior race by the Western march of white civilization. Two sculptures that once decorated the Capitol, Horatio Greenough's The Rescue and Luigi Persico's Discovery of America, both commissioned by the government in 1836, were so explicitly racist that Congress finally removed them in 1958 after years of protests by Native Americans. The Rescue was finally destroyed in a moving accident in 1976 and never repaired, although few in contemporary times have ever mourned its loss. In the 19th Century, however, these sculptures "embodied...
At the time, the main controversy in Congress was over whether an Italian immigrant like Persico should be receiving federal patronage at all, which is why Greenough's sculpture was also commissioned. Persico portrayed Columbus stepping boldly ashore to claim the Americas for Europe, with a mostly nude female 'savage' kneeling before him and gazing at his face in awe, terror and wonder. Columbus was "the superior of the Indian princess in every respect," just as Smith was over Pocahontas, and he also had a vision of empire than spanned continents (Fryd 99). This was the era of Manifest Destiny after all, with the annexation of Texas and Oregon and the conquest of the northern half of Mexico, while the place of the Native Americans in this vast scheme of things had been decided by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 -- passed by the same Congress not very long before it commissioned these sculptures.
Greenough modeled The Rescue after the Laocoon, only in his work a gigantic and powerful white pioneer had captured a lithe young Indian who had been threatening physical and sexual violence against his wife and daughter. This youth was also "surprised and awestruck by the pioneer's strength and restraining power," as Greenough intended (Fryd 106). In a letter to Secretary of State John Forsythe in 1837, he explained that his sculpture conveyed the same message and symbolism as William Penn's Treaty with the Indians and Preservation of Captain Smith by Pocahontas in that he had "endeavored to convey the idea of the triumph of the whites over the savage tribes" (Fyrd 107). John Smith's captivity narrative was the first in North America, and somewhat unusual in featuring an adult male instead of women and children, but several thousand more followed it over the next 200 years, including Mary Rowlandson and Peter Williamson. By the 19th Century these captivity narratives had become standardized and sensationalized, with a particular emphasis on rape, mayhem and senseless cruelty and violence to attract a mass audience.…
Fryd, Vivien Green. "Two Sculptures for the Capitol" in Mary Ann Calo (ed). Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings. Perseus Books, 1998: 93-108.
Scheckel, Susan. The Insistence of the Indian: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. Princeton University Press, 1998.
Tilton, Robert S. Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
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