We just acquired a late eighteenth-century, French print, “L’Amerique,” representing America as a handsome Indian woman. The image is very Europeanized, with classical features, the only exotic aspect being the feathered headdress with the sun symbol on the front.
It has long been customary to represent the continents as women, each shown as a “type” that supposedly reflected the nature of that continent. The obvious type for America, from the earliest days of discovery, was as a Native American. These figures were often shown with bows and arrows, or spears, with feathered headdresses, and surrounded by exotic animals or other items, including one with a severed head.
The classic early uses of this representation was on the title pages of atlases, where the four continents were all shown. The title pages by Ortelius (1570) and Mercator (1595) both show America as an Indian, who, along with Africa, is shown mostly naked as opposed to the fully clothed figures of Europe and Asia.
The 18th century was a time when allegories were popular and the use of an Indian figures to represent America was quite common, indicating that this was universally understood by those for whom the prints were intended. “The Tea-Tax Tempest” shows the four continents, including a Native American, watching a magic lantern showing an image of the American Revolution.
This other allegory, which glorifies American Independence, has Benjamin Franklin and a semi-naked (again!) Indian standing under a figure of liberty watching as Britain is overwhelmed.
The figures were now a little more Europeanized in appearance, the “exotic” nature of America represented by feathers and often keeping the figures only partially clothed. After the American Revolution, other figures, such as Columbia and Brother Jonathan, came to be used more than an Indian as the symbol of America, though there were still instances, such as the French print at the top.
The use of a Native American woman to represent America continued into the nineteenth century, always with exotic clothing and feathers, but usually with more clothes that earlier examples.
The exoticism of the symbol, together with the fact that it seemed ok to show an Indian maiden in a manner one would never do for non-natives, meant that some of these images remained a bit more risqué than one might expect for the period.
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