Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863)
Oil on canvas
35 1/2 x 46 in. (90.2 x 116.8 cm)
Signed (lower right): EugDelacroix
Purchase, Gifts of George N. and Helen M. Richard and Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. McVeigh and Bequest of Emma A. Sheafer, by exchange, 1989 (1989.328)
In 1822, the twenty-four-year-old Delacroix noted that he wished to paint characters from Chateaubriand's novel Atala, ou les amours des deux sauvages dans le désert. He began the painting, but abandoned it until the mid-1830s, when he resumed work on it in order to exhibit it at the Paris Salon of 1835. For the Salon catalogue, Delacroix explained the scene: "Fleeing the massacre of their tribe, two young savages traveled up the Meschacébé ([Mississippi River]. During the voyage, the young woman was seized by labor pains. The moment is that when the father holds the newborn in his hands, and both regard him tenderly."
In Chateaubriand's novel, describing the human wreckage that resulted from the French and Indian War (1754–63) and the ensuing forcible European settlement of Native American lands, the heroine, Atala, begins her tale, saying, "We are the sole remains of the Natchez." In 1822, by the time Delacroix decided on this subject for his picture, a painting by Girodet-Trioson of a different scene from the novel, The Burial of Atala (1808, Musée du Louvre, Paris), had been acquired by the French state and hung in the Musée du Luxembourg.