Permanent Residents: Chactas Buries His Love in The Funeral of Atala

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Welcome to our new monthly column Permanent Residents, curated by Andrew Alexander:
In arts writing, there is a lot of focus on the new and the temporary. What about works that are permanently here in our city? This new column will seek to address that imbalance by asking guest writers to engage with work that’s part of our shared permanent collection, providing them the space to reflect on a work that intrigues, excites, and is permanently available for contemplation by readers.

Memories & Inspiration: The Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection of African American Art at the Hunter Museum through January 8th
Anne-Louis De Roussy Girodet-Trioson (French, 1767–1824), The Funeral of Atala, ca. 1811, oil on canvas, 35 x 46 3/8 inches, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from the Forward Arts Foundation, 1990.1

Hey, Gandalf’s in a painting!

That’s the thought that stopped me in front of this work at the High Museum on a recent busy and festive College Night. The temporary Frida & Diego exhibit was a bit crowded, so I’d wandered into the somewhat quieter rooms of the permanent collections, where this painting I’d never really taken much notice of before caught my eye.

As it turns out, it’s not actually Gandalf, of course. This is The Funeral of Atala, painted in the early 19th century by a Frenchman named Anne-Louis De Roussy Girodet-Trioson (the name Anne, like Marie, was once commonly given to boys in France). If you detect a bit of the neoclassical style of famous French painter Jacques-Louis David in Girodet’s work, it should come as no surprise: Girodet was one of David’s star pupils. Girodet may not be an especially familiar name nowadays, but apparently he enjoyed widespread acclaim in his time. He was also the subject of a retrospective of 100 paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2006, and the website for that exhibition helps give us some interesting biographical background.

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Girodet’s parents both died when he was very young (and he eventually added the surname of his guardian “Trioson”), and, although he began studying architecture as a young man, he found himself more drawn to painting, first studying under an artist named Luquin, and later entering the school of the great master David. At 22 years old, Girodet won the Prix de Rome in 1789, thereby allowing him to sit out the most tumultuous events of the French Revolution in neighboring Italy.

He returned to France in 1793 where he enjoyed enormous success, even earning important portrait commissions from members of  the Napoleonic family. Girodet also gained fame for his depictions of classical, romantic, and literary scenes, like Atala, in a style similar to David’s. Indeed, many critics at the time believed the student had surpassed the teacher. In the 1806 Salon, Girodet exhibited his monumental, but now largely ignored Scene of a Deluge, and it beat out David’s Intervention of the Sabine Women for the top prize in painting for the decade (even though the fame of the master’s painting proved to be far more enduring).

The Funeral of Atala likewise caused a sensation when it was first exhibited in the 1808 Paris Salon. It was monumental, spanning nearly 9 x 7 feet (the High’s is a smaller 35 x 46 3/8 inch copy painted by the artist in 1811, allegedly for the Empress Josephine who may have wanted a personal copy of the popular work, though there’s no documentation for this story). It depicts a scene from a then-famous novella, a seminal work of early romanticism called Atala, Or The Love and Constancy of Two Savages by French writer François-René de Chateaubriand.

The drecky novel is set in the New World (Louisiana, no less: a place it seems that neither Chateaubriand nor Girodet had ever visited), and it tells the story of Atala, a half-European, half-Native American girl who promises on her Christian mother’s deathbed that she’ll remain a virgin for life. She’s tempted by her love for a Natchez Indian named Chactas, so she swallows poison to avoid breaking her vow. The ending to this execrable tale comes when Atala is given a Christian burial by an old missionary hermit named Père Aubry (who happens to look like Gandalf), and Chactas vows to become a Christian.

The story is full of antiquated ideas about savagery, paganism, spiritual purity, the superiority of Christianity, and so on. It may sound somewhat grotesque to modern ears, but the novella was a blockbuster in its day in France (Girodet’s is one of many artistic depictions of this scene).

If we’re able to set aside the problematic narrative subject, there are still things it’s possible to admire about Girodet’s work. There’s the rich use of color; the scene is depicted in a lusciously soft yet crystalline sort of light; the landscape—though it doesn’t resemble a Louisiana that any of us might recognize—has an inviting, romantic quality with its intriguing contrasts of light and shadow, its exotic flora, and its enclosed but somehow not claustrophobic or even dark grotto-grave. The arrangement of figures is clearly derived from famous depictions of the burial of Christ, but here the bodies in poses of mourning, death, and loss have a charge of eroticism, and the whole scene packs a strange emotional, aesthetic wallop with its mix of sex and beauty, death and drama.

In the original, monumental The Funeral of Atala there is French text (presumably) carved on the wall of the tomb: “J’ai passé comme la fleur… J’ai séché comme l’herbe des champs” (“I’ve faded like the flower, I’m drying like the grass”) though curiously the tomb wall in the High’s version has been left empty. While the original still hangs in the Louvre, the painting at the High is ours to keep, a permanent resident of Atlanta. 

 -Andrew Alexander

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