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Murder of Jane McCrea

Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford


David Lubin explains the ideological significance of Native Americans at the time Vanderlyn painted The Murder of Jane McCrea :

“In this propagandistic painting, the American Indian symbolizes the brutality of the colonists’ enemy, England. Vanderlyn depicts Indians as quaint curiosities, gentle spirits, or awestruck children of nature in paintings such as his early landscape views of Niagara Falls (1801-1803) and, toward the end of his career, The Landing of Columbus. In all of these works, however, the Indian obviously conveys some political, racial, or ideological meaning.

Before departing for Paris in 1796, Vanderlyn had been a devoted participant in a New York democratic workingman’s club, the Tammany Society, which was named for the legendary Indian sachem Tammany, or Tamenud. Club members dressed themselves in Indian costume, concocted secret rites that emulated Indian traditions, called themselves by Indian names, and employed Indian phrases as code words --- all as a means of setting themselves apart from the aristocratic, English pretentions of the Federalist clubs….Thus, by Vanderlyn’s time it was common for political democrats to identify themselves – albeit superficially – with the American Indian.”

David M. Lubin, “Ariadne and the Indians: Vanderlyn’s Neoclassical Princess, Racial Seduction and the Melodrama of Abandonment,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art, vol. 3, no. 2 (Spring 1989): 13-14. 


Samuel Edgerton explains the fate of Vanderlyn’s Jane McCrea :

The Murder of Jane McCrea was submitted to the Paris salon of that year [1804] and became the first indigenous American history ever to be accepted. Although overshadowed by Baron Gros’s oversized Plague Victims of Jaffa, Vanderlyn’s work was sufficiently Davidian in composition and anti-English by implication to win academic approval….

Today, the Vanderlyn painting is the best known representation of the event and is recognized as an outstanding American contribution to the Neoclassical tradition. Unfortunately, in its own time it elicited little comment. Following the 1804 salon, the artist shipped it back to New York where it hung in the old Academy of Fine Arts until 1842, coming a few years later into the possession of the Hartford Atheneum where it has remained since. Vanderlyn hoped that its exhibition in this country would bring about an elevation of taste – a new world appreciation of the old world heritage of art. That this dream, as we know, was to be sadly premature is foreordained to some extent by the fate of this painting, for Vanderlyn’s representation…did not even become the principal source for later pictorial versions of the same subject.
 Although Vanderlyn’s painting began as an illustration for the Columbiad – the basic ‘iconographical’ source…it was the insipid engraving by Robert Smirke which finally accompanied the published text that was to inspire most subsequent representations….From the position of academic acceptability for tableau d’histoire [history painting] to which Vanderlyn had elevated it, the subject fell to the limbo of broadsides and book-plates, pandering to the egregious nineteenth century penchant for sentiment.”

Samuel Y. Edgerton, Jr., “The Murder of Jane McCrea : The Tragedy of an American ‘Tableau d’Histoire,’” The Art Bulletin, vol. 47 (December 1965): 481-2.

About the Artist

Born: Kingston, NY, 15 October 1775
Died: Kingston, NY, 24 September 1852
Nationality: American