Collection Spotlight: Pocahontas, 1976, Marisol

Marisol (Marisol Escobar) (American, born in France, 1930-2016)
Color lithograph
Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Paul S. D’Amato, LS 1985.3.8  Image © 2018 Estate of Marisol / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Marisol was a Venezuelan-American sculptor active in the 1960s and 1970s pop art movement. Born Maria Sol Escobar, she shortened her name to “Marisol” in her artistic practice to distance herself from a patrilineal identity (Steinhauer, 2016). Born in Paris to a wealthy Venezuelan family, Marisol spent most of her life in the United States. Her mother committed suicide when she was 11, and following this trauma she did not speak out loud regularly for many years, instead learning how to communicate visually by taking art classes. Marisol lived in France, Venezuela, Los Angeles, and New York at different stages in her life, but ended up settling in New York for most of her career. She is best known for her figurative sculpture, commenting on American culture.

Pocahontas / Unidentified artist, copy after: Simon van de Passe, 1595 – 1647. publisher: William Richardson / Engraving on paper, 1793 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

This lithograph depicts Pocahontas (ca. 1596–1617), the Native American woman who married an English colonist, John Rolfe, in the early seventeenth century. Its composition closely resembles An engraving of the same title by Dutch printmaker Simon Van De Passe. That engraving was created in 1616 while Pocahontas, who was also known as Matoaka and later given the Christian name Rebecca, was in England with her husband as part of a publicity tour for the Virginia Company. Pocahontas died of unidentified causes a year later as she sailed back to Virginia, leaving a newborn son behind. The engraving is believed to be the only depiction of her made while she was alive. Marisol’s lithograph also resembles a painting by an unknown artist made around 1760, also following the Van De Passe engraving, that hangs in the US Senate building today. In all three images, Pocahontas is dressed in typical seventeenth-century elite British attire, including a lace ruff and richly embroidered coat, which would have covered up the tattoos that would likely have been visible on her arms and neck (Pocahontas 2007). Around the image on the Van De Passe print, and around the image on the other two images, writing identifies Pocahontas in relation to men in her life, as “Motoaks, as Rebecka daughter of the Mighty Prince Powhatan… and wife to the John Rolfe.”

Marisol’s work contrasts with its predecessors most notably in Pocahontas’ skin tone. Marisol’s use of black ink in this print provocatively portrays Pocahontas with black skin, transforming Van De Passe’s figure, which is light-skinned, and the painted portrayal, which is positively white. The alignment of the figure’s complexion with the black background draws attention to the lighter-colored European dress. Marisol also may be associating Pocahontas’ experiences with those of black subjects in American history, particularly considering she created this work the same year Black History Month was established. Marisol may have been thinking about the history and representations of people of color in the United States. The rough lines and minimal detail that Marisol uses do not seem congruous with the luxurious outfit she is wearing, making the work feel rawer than the earlier, idealizing works. Marisol’s use of brighter colors, which accentuate the European attributes of her dress, in juxtaposition with the text associating her in relation to men in her life, draws attention to the motives of the people who commissioned the original print—to communicate to potential colonizers the ability of Native people to assimilate and embrace British culture and to advertise North America to potential colonizers. Pocahontas as a subject blends into the background. This portrayal could be understood as underscoring the loss of individual identity and co-opting of Pocahontas’ image to represent all Native peoples in the eyes of the colonizers.

Marisol created this work in 1976, the year of the United States’ bicentennial. Celebrations of America dominated the cultural landscape of the year, including firework displays, an American history-themed chapter of the animated educational Schoolhouse Rock TV series, ceremonial parades at Disneyland, and a visit from Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. These patriotic displays must have been ripe in Marisol’s mind as she chose to re-imagine a historical portrait of one of the most well-known and misrepresented women in American history.

—Contributed by Zoe Detweiler, Curatorial Intern (BA, Journalism and Art History 2021)

Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences


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