Christian sentiment and interest in the Americas were at a high point in France in 1808 when Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson painted his version of Burial of Atala and captured both of these popular ideas. The Catholic Church and the French government had recently signed an agreement restoring power to the Church after the French Revolution of the previous two decades had taken it away. At the same time, Christian missionaries, colonial settlers, and explorers were sending their travel accounts back to France and most French people, who would never actually see the Americas, were fascinated by stories from this faraway place. This painting, full of Christian motifs, of the burial of a young girl mourned by her Native American beloved is based on a novella written by François René Chateaubriand, who had journeyed to North America in 1791.
In Chateaubriand’s fictional story set in in the 1700s in the American South (specifically the French-owned Louisiana Territory), the Christian girl Atala made a vow to her mother to remain celibate, and rather than break it for her beloved, a Native American Natchez man named Chactas, she killed herself. In Girodet’s composition, we see Atala’s corpse, sensually draped between the grieving Chactas and the priest who helped them escape a storm, Father Aubry. She is dressed in white, a color symbolizing innocence and purity in European cultures, with a crucifix clutched in her hands. Her pose and the setting in a cave reference common Christian iconography, like scenes of the Entombment and the Deposition that depict Christ after his death. Atala is depicted as saint-like, martyred for her virtue and faith. Chactas’s identity as a Native American is suggested by his comparatively dark complexion, lack of clothing, and long flowing hair, representing an imagined exotic savage in a missionary narrative about “saving” indigenous people with Christianity.