Funeral of Atala
Sylvain Bellenger notes Girodet’s creativity in taking inspiration from Chateaubriand’s Atala :
“The picture’s title at the Salon in 1808, Atala au tombeau (Atala at the Tomb), suggests a single place and a specific moment from the story – frozen in the time frame of a distinct action fulfilling the three unities of classical tragedy. And yet there is no exact fit between the scene as painted and Chateaubriand’s text, in which the burial takes place over five pages and is interspersed with Chactas’s relating of his own impressions and emotions. Rather than merely illustrating a crucial moment from the plot, Girodet opted for a synthesis of the different stages of mourning, from watching over the body to the burial, and provided them with potent symbolic attributes. The spade in the foreground intimates the actual doffing of the grave. The prayer of the long vigil is suggested by the words from the Book of Job, quoted by Father Aubry: ‘I have faded like a flower, I have withered like the grass in the fields,’ which are etched into the rock face, while the morning light, filtering through the foliage, focuses on the very moment of burial. It was at dawn that Atala’s body had been borne ‘beneath the arch of the natural bridge, at the entry to the Thickets of death,’ which Girodet signals with the cross thrusting up to the East and seen through the rocky opening. …
Rather than illustrate Chateaubriand’s text, Girodet subjects it to a semantic analysis, and without reproducing the story provides an overview of it in an image that sums up both plot and meaning.”
Sylvain Bellenger, ”Christian Pathos,” in Sylvain Bellenger,ed. Girodet 1767-1824. Exhibition catalogue (Paris: Musée du Louvre, 2005), pp. 302-3.
Friedrich Antal describes the political and religious context surrounding Girodet’s The Funeral of Atala:
“Chateaubriand’s Atala novel, Girodet’s Atala painting are clear symptoms of the same tendency: a religious revival. Napoleon and the upper middle classes – the Empire had brought the final victory of this stratum – again required the help of the [Catholic] church. The concordat was signed and the cult [Roman Catholicism] restored (1802). Thus the field was clear for a development of those elements of early romanticism which were tinged with religious emotion and capable of being transformed into religious feeling in the ecclesiastic sense. But however much the protagonists of this new tendency could take from [Jean Jacques] Rousseau, they nevertheless had necessarily to abandon his point of view as a whole. Chateaubriand, who definitely turned his back on eighteenth-century rationalism, created the ideology of this early romantic ecclesiastically religious revival. His chief claim in favor of Catholicism was that it was so full of beauty and so beneficial for art. This was advanced as the new, decisive argument for the intellectuals who, having lived through the age of the Encyclopaedists and the Revolution, had ended by becoming politically indifferent and generally disillusioned….Chateaubriand created an exotic atmosphere of Catholicism, filled with beings that consist of lyric emotions with a tinge of sensualism. The unspoilt ‘man of nature’ of Rousseau has become the Christian Red Indian of Chateaubriand and Girodet.”
Friedrich Antal, “Reflections on Classicism and Romanticism-II,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 68, no. 396 (March 1936): 138.
David Wakefield notes the popularity of the Atala subject and its particular appeal to Girodet:
“A brief statistical count of paintings exhibited at the Paris Salons between 1802 and 1848 shows that fifty-one took their subjects from Chateaubriand: of these eighteen were taken from Atala…among contemporary French writers Chateaubriand was by far the most popular literary source with painters….Chateaubriand’s impact on French art made itself felt immediately after the publication of Atala in 1801. At the Salon of 1802 two works inspired by Atala were exhibited; Mlle Lorimier’s Young Lady by a Window, Crying at a Passage from Atala [Jeune fille près d’une fenêtre, pleurant sur un passage d’Atala, location unknown], and Gautherot’s Atala’s Funeral Procession [Convoi d’Atala, location unknown].…Girodet may be seen as an early type of the painter-poet, determined to extend the range of painting to include emotions and effects hitherto reserved for literature; he was an omnivorous reader, and during his lifetime produced many illustrations for editions of Homer, Virgil, Anacreon, Racine and Bernadin de Saint-Pierre. He was, moreover, a firm adherent to the principle of ‘ut pictura poesis’and in his long didactic poem The Painter he defined his own essentially literary conception of painting…
This strong literary bent drew Girodet instinctively to Chateaubriand’s work. The close sympathy and mutual understanding which soon grew up between them may be partly due to the fact that both of them stood in a similar relationship to the tradition on which they had been nurtured; both continued to cling to certain formal vestiges of their classical training, even though this conflicted with their emotional, Romantic leanings. This instinctive sympathy can be immediately gauged from Girodet’s famous Portrait of Chateaubriand (Museum of Saint-Malo) painted in 1807-08, showing the author in self-consciously Napoleonic pose, with tousled locks, hand tucked under his lapel, reclining against the Roman background with the Colosseum on the left. It epitomized the role in which Chateaubriand cast himself: the solitary genius against the background of eternity.”
David Wakefield, “Chateaubriand’s Atala as a Source of Inspiration in Nineteenth-Century Art,” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 120, no. 898 (January 1978): 19.
The Burial of Atala, study-drawing (Louvre)