Portrait of Reverend Samson Occom

ca. 1751–1756Nathaniel SmibertAmerican, 1735–1756oil on canvas30 1/8 in. × 24 15/16 in. (76.52 cm × 63.34 cm)

Bequest of the Honorable James Bowdoin III


The Portrait of Reverend Samson Occom by Nathaniel Smibert, collected by James Bowdoin III, depicts the prominent minister of the Connecticut Mohegan tribe who graduated from Dartmouth founder Eleazar Wheelock’s “Latin School.” In contrast to other contemporary depictions of Occom, which obscure his Native American ethnicity, Smibert’s painting of the Reverend combines clear indications of Occom’s indigeneity with the dress of a Roman senator, a blending of cultural references that would have been both legible and curious to contemporary viewers. The Roman garb is undoubtedly a reference to Occom’s classical learning and oratorical skills, founded on his mastery of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. 

Wheelock sent Occom to London in 1675 to raise funds for a proposed school for Native Americans, promising to care for his family in his absence. Occom was enormously successful in his fundraising—delivering hundreds of sermons and lectures over three years in London. But upon his return he learned that Wheelock had shirked his responsibility. Adding insult to injury, Wheelock repurposed the funds raised by Occom to found Dartmouth College, dedicated primarily to the interests of wealthy white Americans.

—Sean P. Burrus

James Bowdoin III

The son of the wealthy merchant and second governor of Massachusetts, James Bowdoin II, Bowdoin figured among a small group of leading figures who recognized the value of art in fostering enlightened ideals and philosophical contemplation among a budding republic.