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Pocahontas as "Christy Girl"

Maryann Pasda DiEdwardo, Dept. of English, Lehigh University

Pocahontas as  "Christy Girl"

Matoaka als Rebecca

[1] In contrast to Pocahontas as "Lady Rebecca" described in Edward Gallagher's essay on the 1616 Simon van de Passé engraving (image #1), Howard Chandler Christy's 1911 Pocahontas (image #148) 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.

[2] Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952), who evinced a passion for painting as early as age four, began working for Scribner's Magazine in 1898 and quickly became one of the most recognized magazine illustrators of his time, reaching at one period a total audience of approximately 64 million Americans. By 1910, Christy's annual earnings were estimated at a then small fortune of $50,000, and a single contract with William Randolph Hearst in 1912 paid him $18,000 a year. Christy introduced his trademark "Christy Girl" in an 1898 Scribner's illustration entitled "The Soldier's Dream" depicting a female figure in the pipe smoke of a Spanish-American War hero. This first example of Christy's ideal American woman soon developed into the image of a beautiful, modern, and educated young woman who loved both the outdoors and sports, appearing in many of Christy's magazine illustrations, which neared 6,000 by 1905. Christy, along with Charles Dana Gibson and his "Gibson Girl," is credited with "transforming bashful turn-of-the-century damsels into athletic modern young women."  The hearts of the "Christy Girl," said one commentator, "beat violently behind their armor or whalebone. They were beginning to demand their rights." The "Christy Girl" was popular with men because of her charm, while the young women liked her because she embodied their dreams of emancipation (Schneider). This characteristic girl, then, was Christy's emblem -- "saucy but elegant, independent but sweet" (Meyer 239).

[3] Christy's 1911 Pocahontas was originally an illustration in his Liberty Belles: Eight Epochs in the Making of the American Girl. This book is the largest, scarcest, and most impressive of Christy's books (the Lehigh University library has a copy). There are eight colored plates, each accompanied by a poem: Pocahontas, the Puritan Girl, The Colonial Girl, The Revolutionary Girl, The Pioneer Girl, The Dixie Girl, The Western Girl, and The American Girl. Scholars agree that "Christy defined his idealized 'girl' as 'high bred,' aristocratic and dainty though not always silken-skirted; a woman with tremendous self-respect." Christy, then, saw Pocahontas as one of the eight "Liberty Belles" – "famous females of American history who had prefigured the independent young women of his generation, and so had led to their 'making' or evolution" (Rasmussen and Tilton).

Baptism of Pocahontas

[4] Christy's painting shows Pocahontas on the brink of assimilating. She is not the steely-eyed woman who has crossed over captured by van de Passe. Nor is she the slight, cool, motionless, passionless woman at the ceremonial moment of assimilation depicted by John Gadsby Chapman in his famous Baptism of Pocahontas that hangs in the United States Capitol rotunda (image #22). This is Pocahontas's personally dramatic moment. This is her story, the story of a sensual woman faced with a decision and filled with emotion. The painting not only shows Pocahontas on the brink of assimilating, but it registers the cost of that assimilation, for even though she looks white here, looks English, her costume is beautifully Native American, and she's positioned between fire and forest, as rooted in and as at one with nature as the tree behind her. The viewer senses that her acceptance, if it comes, is her (and our) loss, but there seems no choice:

Pocahontas seems by no means ready for absorption into English culture, by either conversion or marriage. No crucifix hangs at the end of the prominent necklace she wears. . . . Christy's Pocahontas could not return the apparent love of her pursuer because to do so would cost this independent young woman her freedom, a valued characteristic of the "Christy Girl." There is no resolution to this problem. Daphne transformed herself into a tree to avoid Apollo; Christy's Pocahontas seems nearly to do the same. (Rasmussen and Tilton 45-46).

And who is the suitor? Is he John Smith? Possibly, since the poem by William Makepeace Thackeray that accompanies the image in Liberty Belles recounts the deliverance of Smith (see Thackeray 1858). And by this time the legend of Smith's love for Pocahontas was fast replacing the facts to the contrary. But it was John Rolfe she married, so, conversely, one can argue that the undistinguished man who kneels at her feet and holds her hand in endearment is her future husband Rolfe. But it makes no difference. Whichever of these two legitimate heroes and saviors of Jamestown (and hence America) is dimly pictured here, it matters not. Contrary to our usual mode of heroification, it is not his story. The figure of Pocahontas towers over the man. We are visually compelled by the drama of Pocahontas "clearly resisting" her English suitor (Rasmussen and Tilton 46).

[5]In comparison to the Simon van de Passé image, then, we encounter a very different approach to the assimilation of Pocahontas. As we view the Christy version of Pocahontas, the most astonishing historical counterpoint of story and art occurs. We are suspended in drama as the heroine in action captures our hearts. A moment when the feminine must decide her fate fills us with suspenseful anticipation.

Meyer, Susan E. America's Great Illustrators. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1978.

Rasmussen, William M. S., and Robert S. Tilton. Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend. Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1994.