The Simon van de Passe engraving
The 1616 image at right is the only representation of Pocahontas made in her lifetime. It is believed that Simon van de Passe (1595-1647), the Dutch engraver, sketched her likeness in an actual sitting, then created the engraving for the Virginia Company to use in their publicity campaign. This is the closest we'll ever get to knowing what Pocahontas looked like. Interestingly, de Passe is also our source for the likeness of John Smith.
The clothes that Pocahontas is wearing in the portrait are meant to show how well integrated she was into English life in order to reassure investors that the natives could be made to adopt English ways. The beaver hat is light in color, presumably white or tan. The feather fan is said to be symbolic with various interpretations, but we can see many such fans in portraits of the era.
The names Matoaka (her real Indian name) and Rebecca (her Christian name) appear in the border. Husband John Rolfe's name is also mentioned (Joh. Rolff). This portrait is our source for Pocahontas's age and by calculation, her approximate birth date.
According to Rasmussen & Tilton (1994), in Pocahontas: Her Life & Legend, artist Simon van de Passe was the son of Crispin van de Passe the elder, a portraitist to the English court.. Simon aimed to follow in his father's footsteps (p. 32).
More on the Simon van de Passe Engraving
Copy of Van de Passe engraving made over 150 years later
The 1793 image at right is a copy by an unknown artist of the van de Passe engraving. In this image, Pocahontas has a slightly more European look, as her cheekbones are less clearly defined, and she has rounder eyes. This was a subtle attempt at making Pocahontas appear less 'ethnic.'
The easiest way to distinguish between the two engravings is by looking at the backgrounds (curved lines in the original; straight lines in the copy). The replica also places dots inside the O, C and G of the border writing.
To the casual observer, there may be no significant difference between the reproduction and the original, but to preserve historic authenticity, we should try to keep them apart. This seems to be difficult, as even museum websites, such as that of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture are apt to confuse them. Notice they use the 1793 reproduction on their Pocahontas page while speaking of the "only life portrait.' (March 21, 2018)
The original Simon van de Passe and the reproduction are often attributed to the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., but in fact there are copies of both elsewhere. The images are engravings, so they were meant to be printed on a mass scale.
The Booton Hall Portrait was painted by an unidentified artist, modeled after the Simon van de Passe engraving and some time after the engraving had been published. The portrait has been described by some as being the original upon which Simon van de Passe based his engraving, but that theory is currently not in favor. The painting can only be traced back to the mid-1700s, so there is no evidence it was painted during Pocahontas's lifetime.
Philip L. Barbour, in Pocahontas and Her World (1971), wrote “A European portrait-painter of 1616-1617 would surely have noticed that Pocahontas was 'brown’ or 'tawny,’ like the rest of her people. But the color of her skin in the portrait is clearly European, and her hair is a European brown, not an Indian black. Relying only on the engraving, a painter-copyist would not have recognized his own error.” (from Wikimedia Commons).
In the same vein, the beaver hat is shown as black, while the engraving appears light in color (white or tan). This is another mistake a painter-copyist could have made, but not the original artist/engraver or a hypothetical copyist/engraver.
John Chamberlain (1553-1628), after seeing a copy of the engraving that was widely published, wrote in a letter, "Here is a fine picture of no fayre Lady." It is believed Chamberlain was referencing the engraving and not the painting in order to make such a comment.
The Mary Ellen Howe (1994) Replica
The 1994 Mary Ellen Howe portrait of Pocahontas tries to correct the mistakes in the Booton Hall Portrait and preserves the (presumed) authenticity of the Simon van de Passe engraving. This portrait is in the Virginia Museum of History in Richmond, Va. and graces the cover of both Townsend's Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2004) and Rountree's Pocahontas, Powhatan & Opechancanough (2005) . Note the darker skin than in the Booton Hall portrait the black hair, and the white beaver hat.
Rasmussen & Tilton (1994), in Pocahontas: Her Life & Legend, record that Howe visited and researched the Pamunkey, Mattaponi and Rappahannock Indians of Virginia to better approximate skin color. She noticed the overbite, dimpled chin and high cheek bones from the portrait among Indians living in Virginia today (p 49).
I don't know if gossip John Chamberlain would have liked this portrait any more than the engraving, but for us today, it provides an image that is better than any other we have of the real Pocahontas. Rasmussen and Tilton describe it as "the most accurate portrait of Pocahontas that has been or can be painted." p. 49.
Edit 12/18/2019 - I plan to write in more detail about this portrait, but for now, I'd just like to add two thoughts: 1) the notion that Howe could glean any useful information about Pocahontas's skin color from current Powhatan residents is ridiculous, and 2) the beaver hat would not have been white.
The New World (2005) film version
The New World costume designers did a nice job of capturing the general feel of the attire from the portrait, but we notice right away that they didn't try to duplicate it exactly. The color of the beaver hat is wrong, for one, We have to admit, the black hat here is attractive, though, and the real human face of the actress helps us to understand how an engraving and photo necessarily differ. Obviously, the half-Peruvian, half Swiss-German actress (Q'orianka Waira Qoiana Kilcher) is unlikely to resemble the real Pocahontas, though we'll never know for sure.
The Sedgeford Hall Portrait
The Sedgeford Hall Portrait has an interesting history, and for many years, it was thought to be a portrait from life of Pocahontas and her son, Thomas Rolfe. This turned out to be wishful thinking on the part of the Rolfe family in England, who purchased the painting in the U.S. based on that mistaken belief.
The painting is actually of Pe-o-ka, the wife of Seminole Chief, Osceola, and their son.
The portrait is on display in King's Lynn Town Hall, Norfolk, UK. A sign posted under the portrait reads, "The mother and child portrayed are probably Pe-o-ka, the wife of Osceola, the War Chief of the Seminoles of Florida, and their child in 1837. It was acquired by Eustace Neville Rolfe of Heacham Hall who believed it represented Pocahontas and her son."
Many books and websites on Pocahontas still feature this image, claiming it to be Pocahontas and Thomas Rolfe. Don't be fooled!
(more on this to come ...)
Erroneous Plaque at Historic Jamestowne
One might think that Historic Jamestowne would try to get the image of Pocahontas right, but as we see from the plaque inside the reconstructed church, the image of Pe-o-ka from the Sedgeford Hall Portrait is used to represent Pocahontas. The plaque makes no reference to the source of the image. It reads:
"This stone commemorates princess Pocahontas or Matoaka, daughter of the mighty American Indian chief, Powhatan. Gentle and humane, she was the friend of the earliest struggling English colonists.whom she ably rescued, protected and helped.
At her conversion to Christianity in 1613, she received in baptism the name Rebecca and shortly afterwards became the wife of John Rolfe, a settler in Virginia. She visited England with her husband in 1616, was graciously received by Queen Anne, wife of James I. In the twenty-second year of her age, she died at Gravesend, England, while preparing to revisit her native country, and was buried there in St. George's church.on March 21st, 1617."
I suspect that the Historic Jamestowne museum would like to rectify the error, but the plaque has probably gained some historical value of its own, making it difficult to casually replace.