Representations of Pocahontas

Representations of Pocahontas

“Pocahontas is a babe.” – Mel Gibson, voice of Captain John Smith in Disney’s Pocahontas (Edwards 147)


Van de Passe, Simon. “Matoaka als Rebecca.” 1616

            This engraving is known as the only portrait of Pocahontas done from life. Rayna Green describes this engraving, “The most famous portrait of Pocahontas, the only one said to be done from life (at John Rolfe’s request), shows the Princess in Elizabethan dress, complete with ruff and velvet hat- the Christian, English lady the ballad expects her to become and the lady she indeed became for her English husband and her faithful audience for all time” (700). Pocahontas is only depicted from life in European clothes rather than her Native clothes at her adult age, so this questions how accurate depictions of her Native side are because they all must be conjectures, considering the rest of the representations of Pocahontas were done after her death.

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“Pocahontas.” (The Booton Hall portrait) c. 1700-1800.

This portrait of Pocahontas, surviving a fire, depicts “the little exile from her native forests of Virginia, pitifully stiff in her unaccustomed court dress” (431). A description of her representation comments, “The nose and chin are too heavy for beauty, the under lip has an almost Hapsburg overhang; the cheek bones are high and warmly tinted, as they might be expected to be; but the complexion, while dark, is not ‘red,’ rather is it that of the Gothic Spanish type which Goya loved to paint; and the hair is distinctly brown. It is, however, the lustrous almond shaped eyes, brown with gleams of chatain-clair, and the delicately painted high arched brows, which give the face distinction. Those eyes have, indeed, a haunting aspect of melancholy which is consciously mysterious and aloof” (“The Pocahontas Portrait” 432). In contrast, the engraving by de Passe is condemned as an insulting caricature:  “…it is the palpable original from which DePasse engraved the cruel caricature which ever since her death has passed current as the likeness of Pocahontas…” (“The Pocahontas Portrait” 434). Though the de Passe engraving may be a caricature of Pocahontas, the Booton Hall portrait displaces Pocahontas further from her Native culture by not only depicting her in western clothes but also rendering her with pale skin and lighter hair.

The white appearance of Pocahontas in this portrait relates to the concept of the “Indian Princess,” an American figure that serves to represent America and its values (Green 702-703). The Indian Princess is not rendered like other Natives. Green describes, “The Princess is ‘civilized’; to illustrate her native nobility, most pictures portray her as white, darker than the Europeans, but more Caucasian than her fellow natives” (704). The light skin of Pocahontas forces her into the role of the Indian Princess and associates her more closely with Europeans than with Natives. It serves to distinguish her as the savior of Europeans while still allowing for prejudice against Natives. She is unique; the other Natives are not necessarily to be revered through Pocahontas. Rather, she is the exception, allowing for continued beliefs in white supremacy, in art especially.

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“Pocahontas and Thomas Rolfe.” (The Sedgeford Hall portrait) c. 1750-1800.

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Chapman, John Gadsby. “Pocahontas Saving the Life of Captain John Smith.” 1836

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Chapman, John Gadsby. “The Warning of Pocahontas.” 1836

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Chapman, John Gadsby. “The Baptism of Pocahontas.” 1840

Many art pieces focus on Pocahontas’s rescue of John Smith, but most gloss over Pocahontas’s kidnapping. Chapman’s painting depicts Pocahontas’ conversion from the white perspective, but it is questionable whether it is a depiction of “religious subjugation” or of “spiritual redemption” (Pocahontas Archive). It also serves to bypass focus on the “circumstances leading to that [conversion to Christianity].” Chapman’s painting, then, ignores the kidnapping that led to Pocahontas’s conversion, serving to present the whites in the best light.

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Ferris, Jean Leon Gerome. “The Abduction of Pocahontas.” 1910.

Ferris’ painting is a unique attempt to address Pocahontas’ kidnapping, but there is a “deflective quality produced by the juxtaposition between Argall and the residents of Jamestown. Positioned on the left-hand side of the painting, a smug Captain Argall stands proudly before his captive prize. On the right, a shocked crowd of Jamestown citizens, led by Sir Thomas Gates, listens to Pocahontas as she recounts the atrocity performed against her by the cunning privateer. While the painting does directly address the kidnapping of Pocahontas, it does so in a manner still attached to an imperialist agenda: it promotes the idea that the Jamestown residents were inherently virtuous in their own actions and that Pocahontas saw them as benevolent helpers rather than as the architects of her imprisonment” (Pocahontas Archive). So even though this painting address Pocahontas’s kidnapping, it isolates Argall as the villain, vindicating the other residents and thus whites.

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Rice, Daniel, and James Clark. “Pocahontas.” 1842

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Stearns, Junius Brutus. “The Death of Pocahontas.” 1848.

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Glass, James William. “John Rolfe and Pocahontas.” c. 1850

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(Green page 705)

Pocahontas’s image was used for advertising as well. Tremblay notes, “Rolfe mourned her passing and used her image to market his tobacco” (123). Her husband was the first to use her image as a marketing tool. The above picture is an example of a Tobacco label.

Describing the later trends in the use of Pocahontas’s image, Tremblay adds, “First there were tobacco ads, later plays, poems, musicals, and now animated features and dolls that eroticize her in the imagination of adults and children alike. And so, in America, yet another generation plays Indian, imagining native women’s bodies, all tits and ass; our Native cultures, a magic show- doomed to feed other people’s fantasies while we face being dehumanized by people who think themselves so supreme that they can own it all, define it all, take it all, and leave us with images only a few seem to have the sense to laugh at, to cry about, to loathe” ( Tremblay 123).  This emphasizes that the focus is less on an accurate portrayal of Pocahontas but more on a sexual white conception of Pocahontas.

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White, Edwin. “Pocahontas Informing John Smith of a Conspiracy of the Indians.” c. 1852.

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Sully, Thomas. “Pocahontas.” 1852.

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Sully, Robert Matthew. “Pocahontas.” c. 1852.

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Brueckner, Henry. “The Marriage of Pocahontas.” 1855.

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Inger, Christian. “Smith Rescued by Pocahontas.” New York: H. Schile, 1870. After Edward Corbould.

This painting is an example of the many that show Pocahontas saving John Smith. Green remarks, “Many paintings and drawings of this [Pocahontas with ‘her body flung over the endangered head of our hero’] exist, and it appears in popular art on everything from wooden fire engine side panels to calendars. Some renderings betray such ignorance about the Powhatan Indians of Virginia- often portraying them in Plains dress- that one quickly comes to understand that it is the mythical scene, not the accuracy of detail that moved artists” (700). This points out that not only is Pocahontas not necessarily portrayed accurately but neither are the Powhatans in general. The concern is again on the white conception of this scene and how white culture has mythologized the scene. Pocahontas is also depicted with fair skin here in a sexualized manner without a top. She is also rendered as a woman rather than a child.

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Christy, Howard Chandler. “Pocahontas.” 1911.

DiEdwardo describes Christy’s painting of Pocahontas in contrast to Chapman’s. She refers to Pocahontas in Chapman’s painting as the “slight, cool, motionless, passionless woman at the ceremonial moment of assimilation” (DiEdwardo). In contrast, she states, “Howard Chandler Christy’s 1911 Pocahontas is Pocahontas as “Christy Girl,” a phenomenally popular image of femininity in that period and one that was associated with the so-called emancipation of women. Van de Passe’s Pocahontas is static, rigid, fixed, literally collared by her inscription – perfectly suited to black-and-white presentation. But Christy imagines his full-bodied, full of color, and full of expression heroine not only in action but in the action in which the feminine must decide her fate. Framed beside a kneeling dark male suitor, an emotionally vulnerable Pocahontas is beautiful but contemplative as she responds to a marriage offer, an offer that literally transformed the real-life Pocahontas into “Lady Rebecca.” It is by no means certain, however, “says” this image, that this Pocahontas will accept that offer or, indeed, given the shadowy depiction of the man, that she should. More on this suspense later, but for now suffice it to say that, in contrast to van de Passe, Pocahontas as “Christy Girl” is a romantic, legendary, mythic character portrayed in a medley of tragic story, natural world, and artistic and stylistic beauty” (DiEdwardo).

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Brooke, Richard Norris. “Pocahontas.” 1905.


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Leigh Edwards discusses the representation of Pocahontas in Disney’s Pocahontas. She begins, “The film takes America’s first interracial love story and deflects the racial mixing involved in the historical narrative into a visual figure of multiethnicity: it prevents actual interracial mixing from occurring while it explicitly makes Pocahontas’s animated body visually multiethnic.” (148). More importantly, she comments, “Pocahontas depicts a purely symbolic representation of multiple cultures, while it simultaneously deflects actual racial mixture” (149). She is not necessarily a Powhatan Indian woman, but just a generic non-white woman.

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Disney distinguishes their Pocahontas from the historical woman that really existed by changing her from the little girl who actually saved John Smith to a full-grown woman in love with Smith. She notes, “Pocahontas becomes a beautiful and voluptuous young woman to Smith’s brawny twentysomething hero, rather than the girl of eleven or twelve—to Smith’s twenty-six—that she would have been at the time of the events” (151). Further, her outfit becomes sexualized in addition to her physical body: “…her Indian princess costume cut high in the thigh, hanging from one shoulder, and her voluptuous figure, Pocahontas stands as a icon of Western standards of exoticized female beauty” (154).

Gertrude Custalow, a Powhatan Indian, remarks, “The real Pocahontas was a child, not a voluptuous woman. And one thing’s for sure—she didn’t own an uplift bra (quoted in Tillotson C8)” (Edwards 154). This stresses the sexualized nature of representations of Pocahontas not only in art but also in children’s movies. This also addresses Disney’s indifference to what Pocahontas actually looked like. Instead, they make her into a “brown-skinned Barbie Doll” (154).

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The artist who created Disney’s Pocahontas concerned himself less with recreating what Pocahontas must have looked like in reality and more with creating a generic racial other. He literally combines women of various non-white races to generate a very sexualized representation of Pocahontas. Edwards states, “Pocahontas becomes an historically-impossible multiethnic body—an anachronistic image composed of ‘aesthetically-pleasing’ body parts drawn from American Indian, African American, Asian American, and Caucasian models. Disney animator Glen Keane describes his Pocahontas drawing as ‘an ethnic blend whose convexly curved face is African, whose dark, slanted eyes are Asian and whose body proportions are Caucasian’ (qtd. In Tillotson C8). In addition to historical representations of Pocahontas herself, the visual models of various ethnicities that Keane used for his drawing included Irene Bedard, the American Indian actor who provides Pocahontas’s voice, American Indian consult to the film Shirley ‘Little Dove’ Custalow McGowan, Filipino model Dyna Taylor, black supermodel Naomi Campbell, and white supermodels Kate Moss and Christy Turlington” (151-152).


                        Irene Bedard     Christy Turlington   Naomi Campbell           Kate Moss

Edward also comments, “…in addition toscreen footage of supermodels, Keane went to books on classical Western beauty so that he could ‘concoct a heroine that John Smith, or any man, animated or otherwise, might love’ (qtd. In Making). …from the point of view of the Anglicized male gaze, that Pocahontas’s beauty must overcome her race—her status as a ‘savage,’ as a racial Other” (154). The animator directly referenced European standards for beauty rather than trying to reference the real Pocahontas.

His comparison of Pocahontas and Ariel further reveals his superficial conception of Pocahontas as a Native. Edwards explains, “…Keane tells the audience that because Pocahontas is ‘ethnic,’ her facial structure will be ‘the opposite’ of Ariel’s Caucasian one, and he points out that what he describes as Pocahontas’s ‘ethnic’ features, such as her ‘Asian’ forehead, which is much lower than Ariel’s” (152). The distinction is not between whites and Powhatan Indians but between whites and non-whites.

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Edwards argues, “Pocahontas is no longer specifically American Indian but rather an undifferentiated visual compilation of non-white ethnicities” (152).  Pocahontas is conceived as a combination of beautiful non-white women, which combines all non-whites into a single group.

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Pocahontas is supposed to look like “the finest creature the human race has to offer” (152). Even Disney portrays Pocahontas as the sexual Native woman.

Like how the Indian Princess is distinguished from the other Natives, Pocahontas is similarly demarcated from the other Indians in the movie. In comparison to the depictions of the other Powhatan Indians in the movie, “…Pocahontas takes on a marked status within the visual universe of the text. Her long, angular facial structure, pert nose, almond-shaped eyes, and flowing waist-length hair—which constantly billows around her and is parted on one side with an artful supermodel flip—differentiate her from the other American Indian women in the film, who are pictured with larger eyes and noses, more rounded faces, their hair either in bangs or long and parted in the middle. This Indian Princess is somehow visually Other. The film’s stereotyped racial morphologies establish her as a complex, not quite decipherable mix of ethnicities while its visuals type the other women in the film differently, setting them up as Disney’s version of American Indian. Ultimately, Pocahontas looks almost as much like the Caucasian women bidding their husbands farewell on the docks in England as she does her fellow Powhatans” (152).  This distinction in art between Pocahontas and the Natives allows people to acknowledge Pocahontas as a heroine and savior to the whites without forcing them to overcome their racism.

Evidently, artistic representations of Pocahontas reduce her into a stereotypical white conception of a Native woman, based less on reality and more on fantasy. She is subjected to sexualization and is dissociated from Natives to allow for a perpetuation of white biases against Natives.


DiEdwardo, Maryann Pasda. “Pocahontas as ‘Christy Girl.’” <>

Edwards, Leigh H.. “The United Colors of “Pocahontas”: Synthetic Miscegenation and Disney’s Multiculturalism.” Narrative7.2 (1999): 147-168. Print.

Green, Rayna. “The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Women in American Culture.” The Massachusetts Review 16.4 (1975): 698-714. Print.

“The Pocahontas Archive – Introduction.”Digital Library | Lehigh University Library Services. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2013. <;.

“The Pocahontas Portrait.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 35.4 (1927): 431-436. Print.

Tremblay, Gail. “Reflecting on Pocahontas.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 23.2 (2002): 121-126. Print.


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