Tag Archives: National Portrait Gallery in Washington

Edith Wharton’s Own “Age of Innocence”


In the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., I loved this charming portrait of the American author Edith Wharton as a small child.  She grew up as a privileged daughter of a wealthy and well-connected family in New York in the late 1900s.  In fact, the expression “keeping up with the Joneses” was said to refer to the family of her father, George Frederic Jones.

Her life was not easy, though.  She always rebelled against the confines of her social class.  in 1885, at age 23, she made what seemed like a good marriage to Edward Wharton, 12 years her senior, who seemed to share her curiosity and love of travel.  However, he suffered from severe depression which finally turned into very serious mental illness.  Eventually they divorced. Edith never remarried, but took up with a journalist, Morton Fullerton.


Edith spent much of her life in Europe, where her satirical view of her upper-class social circle only sharpened. She wrote many novels and short stories.  “The Age of Innocence” was one of her most popular novels.  She received the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1921, making her the first woman to win the award.  She was also nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1927, 1928 and 1930.

Any novel by Edith Wharton is a perfect travel companion.  “The Age of Innocence,” about an impossible romance between a European noblewoman and a strait-laced New York man, is one of my favorites. It’s on my e-reader, ready to dip into on my next trip!

The Real Pocahontas


I could spend many hours in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. I recently encountered Pocahontas there.  The portrait is by an unknown artist, dating from about 1616. It was made from an engraving of Pocahontas during her trip to England as a young bride.

Pocahontas was a Native American “princess,” the daughter of Powhatan. Her father was a sort of chief of chiefs, heading many tribes in the tidewater area of what is now Virginia. As a perk of his high position, Powhatan reportedly married women from all the different tribes, kept each one until she had produced a child, then sent them home without the child. By all reports, Pocahontas was a favorite child of his.

Relations between the Native Americans and the English were sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile–no wonder, since the aim of the English was to exploit the resources of the “New World.”  When I was growing up, every American school child heard the endearing story of how an Englishman, John Smith, was about to be executed by Powhatan (by having his head bashed between two large rocks). Pocahontas, then about 12 or 13, threw herself on the Englishman and begged her father to spare his life.

From the bare bones of this story, there are not one but two Disney movies.  The real Pocahontas was captured by the English during a hostile period in 1613.  While in captivity, she converted to Christianity, and chose to stay with the English when she was offered freedom.  She took the new name “Rebecca.” Shortly afterward, she married an English tobacco planter, John Rolfe.

Baptism of Pocahontas, John Gadsby Chapman, 1840, Public Domain

Baptism of Pocahontas, John Gadsby Chapman, 1840, Public Domain

Her baptism and marriage were portrayed in 1840 by the American historical painter John Gadsby Chapman. The painting shows the groom just behind Pocahontas.  Her brother, in Native American dress, is turning away, presumably in disapproval.

The young bride gave birth to a son, Thomas Rolfe.  Then she and John Rolfe journeyed to England in 1616.  She was a bit of a sensation, presented as an example of the “civilizing” effect the English hoped to have on all the native peoples.  She died in England, at the age of only 21 or 22.

The descendants of Pocahontas, through her son Thomas Rolfe, include many notable Americans such as Edith Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson; Admiral Richard Byrd; Virginia Governor Harry Byrd; socialite Pauline de Rothschild; Nancy Reagan, wife of Ronald Reagan; and many others.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

When Virginia was a Colony

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Recently at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., I came upon a charming portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth I. It’s by an unknown artist and dates from around 1558. Sir Walter Raleigh tried to establish a British colony on what is now known as Roanoke Island.  He named the new colony “Virginia,” in honor of his young Queen, who was already establishing her popular image as the “Virgin Queen.” At the time, the young Elizabeth was keeping a wary eye on powerful Spain, which had extensive colonies already in the “New World.”

Elizabeth was also anxious to reinforce her credentials as the legitimate heir of King Henry VIII, a little problematic since her mother, Ann Boleyn, had been executed as an adulteress and traitor to the throne. So Elizabeth was portrayed with the famous square-cut stone known as “The Mirror of France,” which her father had also worn prominently.

Elizabeth I, Public Domain

Elizabeth I, Public Domain

Years later, after the resounding defeat of the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth had fully developed her authority and had herself portrayed in much grander fashion, as in this portrait from around 1588.  The Queen rests her hand on a globe, symbolizing her international power.

I much prefer the very early portrait, depicting a young woman full of hope and promise at the very beginning of her glorious reign.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!