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© August 2005
revised 26 June 2008
I have two GALLERY exhibits planned on this subject, both of which supplement ongoing discussion of England’s colonial project in Virginia elsewhere on the site (e.g., the GALLERY exhibits on Powhatan’s mantle, the “Velasco Map,” and other maps of colonial Virginia; the PLAYERS pages on Virginia Ferrar; the IN BRIEF topics on the Virginia Company and on origins and issues of slavery in colonial Virginia).
The first planned exhibit will center on Wenceslaus Hollar’s portrait etching of A Twenty-Three-Year-Old Virginian Algonquian, dated 1645, and believed to be “the first portrait print, made from life, of a Native American.”
The second will focus on 17th-century visual and verbal portraits of Native American “queens” and “princesses,” using the engraving of Matoaka by Simon de Passe (1616) as its starting point. The print will be juxtaposed with the painting of Matoaka attributed to Nicola Locker; with John Smith’s developing narratives of Pocahontas, in words and pictures; with pictures of Virginian (modern-day North Carolina) Indian women drawn by John White; with engravings of a Timucuan Indian “queen-elect” (from the area of St. Augustine, Florida) and a Cumaná (Venezuela) Indian “queen”, both printed in the early 1590s; with the portrait of Cockacoeske, Queen of Pamunkey, given in late-17th-century legal documents; and with the character of Semernia, “Indian Queen” of Virginia, as played by Anne Bracegirdle in the staging of Aphra Behn’s drama, The Widdow Ranter (1690).
It is, of course, difficult for a 21st-century historian to assess the impact of 17th-century portraits such as these on the collective visual consciousness of early modern Europeans.
Did Hollar’s “Unus Americanus ex Virginiæ. Ætat: 23.” contribute to European exploitation of an exoticized Other?
Or did it help to familiarize human variety, and thus undermine cultural fears of difference?
And was Hollar’s etching even a realistic portrait of differing 17th-century phenotypes to begin with? After all, he was known to have difficulties capturing “the contours of a human face.” According to one critic,
The engravings of Native Americans published earlier by Theodor de Bry in his series Historia Americae sive Novi Orbis lacked even this level of versimilitude.
To further complicate matters, influential English commentators such as Samuel Purchas, in his Purchas His Pilgrimage (1613, 1614, 1617, and 1626), stressed the physical similarities of the Algonquian Indians:
As constructed by Purchas, the differences between Indian and European were primarily cultural. E.g., it was because of their more moderate lifestyles, as Hariot had first reported, that the Native Virginians were healthier and hardier than Europeans:
With his etchings of Native Virginians Hollar, too, would stress cultural over racial difference.
In an excerpt from his Anatomy of Melancholy (e-text in the she-philosopher.com library, LIB. CAT. NO. BURT1621), Robert Burton speaks of the pleasures of viewing a “variety of attires, faces, so many, so rare, and such exquisite pieces, of men, birds, beasts, etc.” such as Hollar would later produce. Burton was also drawn to ethnic art such as “Indian pictures made of feathers” and “China works.”
The feather-pictures to which Burton referred were brought to Europe from the West Indies. Purchas tells us that Tomineios (hummingbird)
Indeed, in the West Indies, reports Purchas,
The use of hummingbird feathers as a medium for portraiture clearly fired the visual imagination of Europeans. As expressed by Burton, it was a 17th-century commonplace that the human eye delights in “variety,” and the human mind, in creative explorations of similarities and differences in the human condition.
How the graphic artist guides us in this exploratory investigation of self as constructed in reflection, relation, and resistance to others is the issue under consideration here.
TOPICS: intercultural exchange; New World influences on Old World cultures; canonical theories and problems of representation; ocularcentrism (“the epistemological privileging of a reifying and totalizing vision, a gaze of domination”); the politics of representation
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