(b. 1767, Montargis, d. 1824, Paris)

The Entombment of Atala

Oil on canvas, 207 x 267 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Mourning and sacrifice are the themes of The Entombment of Atala, the moving picture that David's pupil Girodet showed at the Paris Salon in 1808. The scene is set in America, the Native American brave Chactas mourns, clasping the legs of his lover, the half-Spanish converted Christian Atala, who expires before him, comforted by a friar. He is not virtuous: he has violated her vow to remain a virgin or die, and as she meets her punishment his lithe sexuality and dangerous power can still be felt. With its wild New World setting, intensely realized emotions and almost supernatural lighting, the picture moves outside classical rules to contrast 'civilization' and 'barbarism' in highly ambivalent terms.

Girodet took his richly suggestive narrative from a popular story published seven years earlier by Chateaubriand, who had gone to America in 1791 to escape the Revolution.