The Burial of Atala by Girodet

The Burial of Atala by Anne-Louis Girodet (1808)

A novella written in 1801 by the French writer Francois-René de Chateaubriand entitled Atala tells of the tragic love story of Chactas, a Natchez Indian and Atala the half-caste Christian daughter of Simagan, the chief of the Muscogees, an enemy Indian tribe, who had captured and sentenced Chactas to death.  Atala eventually frees him from captivity and they run away together.   They are helped by Père Aubry, a Christian missionary and hermit, who takes them to his cave and gives them refuge.   Atala falls in love with Chactas, but cannot marry him as she has taken a vow of chastity. In despair she takes poison.  Père Aubry assumes that she is merely ill, but in the presence of Chactas she reveals what she has done, and Chactas is filled with anger until the missionary tells them that in fact Christianity permits the renunciation of vows. They tend her, but she dies.

My Daily Art Display for today is the painting completed in 1808 entitled The Burial of Atala by the French artist Anne-Louis Girodet who was inspired by the poignant story of the would-be lovers Chactas and Atala.  The death scene, set inside the mouth of the cave, is a representation of the traditional paintings of the “burial of Christ” but in this instance the emotions of passion, love and death are all entwined.  The monumental arrangement of the three figures, the setting of the grotto and the solitary cross seen in the background against the sky reminds one of his earlier painting The Dead Christ Supported by the Virgin.

Girodet, usually known as Girodet-Trioson, a name he took in honour of a surgeon Dr Trioson, who adopted him after he was orphaned, was born in Paris in 1767.  He started school and studied architecture and military studies before concentrating on art.  He became a pupil of Jaques-Louis David one of the greatest Neoclassical painters.  Girodet was looked upon as a star pupil winning a number of prestigious prizes for his works of art.  As was the case in today’s painting, Girodet often preferred literary themes for his paintings.  He also gained a reputation as a first class portraitist and many of his works revolved around the power and glory of Napoleon.

When he was 48 his adopted father, Dr Trioson died leaving him a sizeable inheritance.  From then until his death in 1824 Girodet had no need to earn money by selling his paintings and instead concentrated on his other love, the writing of poetry.