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© August 2005
revised 26 June 2008

Baroque-era printer's ornament

on 17th-century portraits of Native Americans

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,

Hollar was a prolific portrait etcher, both as a copyist and from drawings made ad vivum. He did, however, labor under an unfortunate disadvantage when working from life, namely an almost constitutional inability to distinguish one set of features from another. He seems never to have observed properly the nuances of tone and shading created by a vagary of cheekbone structure, nor the variety of noses and mouths that any random group of people will sport. His faces, in short, are all from the same mold. A similar stricture may be applied to many Stuart or Georgian painters, but in their cases the mold was dictated by fashion and tailored into the barest semblance of a likeness. To Hollar, a variation in a lace ruff, hairstyle, or pendant ribbon was more noticeable than a dimpled chin or a snub nose. That this was a perceived weakness in his lifetime is proved by at least one commissioned plate, that of Charles II as Prince of Wales, for which Hollar was paid to etch the landscape background and the costumed figure but was evidently instructed to leave the space for the face blank for another hand to complete.

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:

They are a people ... of stature like to us in England.


The Virginians are borne white ... The cause of their blacknesse Master Rolph ascribes to their Oyntments which in their smokie Houses they use; even as Bacon with us is so coloured: this within doores they use against the fire, abroad against the Sunne, Master Wingfield sayth, they would bee of good complexion, if they would leave painting (which they use on their face and shoulders.)

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:

They speake of men two hundred yeeres old and more, as Master Wingfield reporteth.

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 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)

feathers, specially of the necke and breasts, are in great request for those feather-pictures, or portraitures, which the Indians make cunningly and artificially with these naturall feathers, placing the same in place and proportion, beyond all admiration.

Indeed, in the West Indies, reports Purchas,

They have aboundance of birds, in beautie of their feathers farre surpassing all in Europe, wherewith the skilfull Indians will perfectly represent in feathers, whatsoever they see drawne with the Pensill. A figure of Saint Francis, made of feathers, was presented to Pope Sixtus Quintus, whose eie could not discerne them to be naturall colours, but thought them pencill-worke, til he made trial with his fingers. The Indians used them for the ornaments of their Kings and Temples.

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

Baroque-era printer's ornament

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