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Not always drawn from life

Depictions of Native Americans often reflected what artists wanted to see, a Huntington display shows.

June 17, 2007|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

HISTORY is the master narrative that the victors get to write, and often they get to draw the pictures as well. "Legacy and Legend: Images of Indians From Four Centuries," a just-opened exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, drives home the point, highlighting visual depictions of Native Americans by Europeans who encountered (and imagined) them. As the shifting images show, as they came in contact with a people so unlike themselves, in so foreign a land, European explorers and settlers projected onto them their hopes, their fears and perhaps even a part of themselves.

Through some 220 prints, posters, photographs and books -- most from the Huntington's own collection -- guest curator Kathryn Hight, an art historian, traces images of Indians from 16th and 17th century copper-plate engravings and limited-edition books to early 20th century photography, when that medium had became commonplace and was regarded as the baseline of truth. These "artists' views reveal sincere but skewed impressions of Indian ways of life," she writes in the introductory wall text.

Take the familiar tale of Pocahontas, who has two display cases in the Boone Gallery devoted to her story -- or, as it turns out, her legend. An engraving from John Smith's 1624 book "Generall Historie of Virginia" shows Smith, a founder of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, lying helplessly on the floor of a long, smoke-filled hut, watched over by flanking galleries of Powhatan Indians. Two warriors hover over him, their clubs held high and ready to dispatch him. A figure beside him extends a protective arm over his torso, while another, larger figure stands to the right as if arguing for his life. One of them is assumed to be Pocahontas, his rescuer. "At the minute of my execution," his account runs, "she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown."

Smith is the only source of this story, says Hight, and "today nobody really believes this happened, but instead it might have been part of an adoption ritual which he didn't understand." Yet, the story of Pocahontas' intervention was so compelling that it has been retold for centuries, and the exhibition includes several volumes of poetry and prose, as well as illustrations, spun about her in the 19th century.

One popular myth posited a romance between Smith and Pocahontas, a story central to such recent retellings as Disney's 1995 animated "Pocahontas" and Terrence Malick's much acclaimed 2005 feature "The New World." But there was never evidence of such a relationship. Pocahontas, whose real name was Matoaka, was about 11 when she met Smith, and "Pocahontas," her nickname, means "playful child." As for the visual images of her, only one portrait was done in her lifetime. That engraving, included in the show, was made by Simon van de Passe in 1616, when she was visiting England and starchily dressed up like a Jacobean lady.

"Legacy and Legend" is timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, and a more tightly focused companion show, "Jamestown at 400: Natives and Newcomers in Early Virginia," opens July 7 at the West Hall of the Huntington Library.

Peter Mancall, co-curator with Robert C. Ritchie of the "Jamestown" show, describes Smith as "one of great fabulators of his time," and it's easy to understand why Smith exaggerated his exploits and dramatized his tale. But interests larger than personal bravado were at play. Commercial publishers were looking to sell rousing adventure and exotic images in the form of prints and books, says Hight, and the Virginia Company of London encouraged Europeans' view of the New World as a kind of Eden, with the natives as innocents, living in harmony with nature and each other. This idealized notion helped attract settlers to their investment, even though, as the "Jamestown" exhibition makes clear, living conditions for the new arrivals were primitive in the extreme.

Hearsay and imagination

THE first section of "Legacy" focuses on this early period, with sepia maps and depictions of Indians living in villages, cooking over open fires, practicing agriculture, carrying weapons. One shows Indians wading in waist-high water, which would have been a curiosity to contemporary Europeans, who avoided immersion in water. ("John Smith must have smelled awful!" says Hight.) There was some truth to these illustrations, but details could be made up, as they were often based on a few drawings brought back from the Americas mixed with ample doses of hearsay and imagination. They're also colored by the artists' European training, as becomes apparent in engravings of Indians striking Baroque poses in generic landscapes.

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