Whistler's title is not known.
This was presumably intended to be a copy, or partial copy of The Entombment of Atala, 1808 (Musée du Louvre, INV 4958) by Anne-Louis Girodet (1767-1824), which is described by the Louvre as:
'Chactas the Indian and Father Aubry are burying Atala, heroine of Chateaubriand's novel, published in 1801. Everything about this funerary elogy - the Christian subject, the exotic setting, intense emotions - must have appealed to those who, on the fringes of David's rigor, remained attached to the sacred, to nature and sentiment.
A young woman torn between love and religion.
In the sunset, in a cave, the old hermit, Father Aubry, is supporting the corpse of the half-caste Atala. Chactas the Indian, stricken with grief, clings passionately to the young woman's knees. Atala, torn between her love for Chactas and the vow she took to remain a virgin and a Christian, committed suicide. With a crucifix clutched in her hand and the drapery of her dress clinging to her bust, she is both pure and sensual. After their all-night vigil, the two men will bury her in the cave. A verse from the Book of Job is carved on the cave wall: "When it is yet in flower, and is not plucked with the hand, it withereth before all herbs." Girodet drew his subject from Chateaubriand's Atala, or the Loves of Two Savages in the Wilderness (1801), set in America in the 17th century. This novel by the first French romantic novelist was published in his hugely popular The Genius of Christianity. The book celebrated Catholicism at the time when Bonaparte signed the Concordat with the Church. The exoticism, the defense of the innocence of primitive peoples and the religious sentiment that characterized the novel are all transposed into the picture. Girodet has not merely illustrated a single scene from Chateaubriand's novel, he has synthesized several passages. He has also forsaken the antique subjects dear to his master, David, for new subject matter: for Girodet, unlike David, painting no longer has a moral or political function.' 2
Girodet showed the painting at the 1808 Salon. It was widely praised, and admired by, among others, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867).
If in fact it was copied by Whistler, it would have been his sole American subject (excluding portraits of Americans).
Last updated: 21st November 2019 by Margaret