Erastus Dow Palmer (American, 18171904)
Marble; 65 x 20 1/4 x 17 in. (165.1 x 51.4 x 43.2 cm)
Bequest of Hamilton Fish, 1894 (94.9.3)
Palmer would undoubtedly be pleased that The White Captive is his best-known sculpture, for when he began it he wrote, "I am now busy modeling my finest work." In this full-length nude, the artist took the opportunity to create a pendant for the Indian Girl (94.9.2). While in the earlier sculpture he wished "to show the influence of Christianity upon the savage," in The White Captive he explored "the influence of the savage upon Christianity." Thus from the beginning The White Captive was, in the sculptor's mind, the personification of Christianity. It portrays a youthful female figure who has been abducted from her sleep and held captive by savage Indians. Hands bound, and stripped of a nightgown hanging from a tree trunk, she turns her head away from the terror, and clenches her left fist, in defiance of imminent harm. Palmer avoided the often cold appearance of Italianate Neoclassical sculpture, in part by using for his model a local girl. He was particularly commended for his use of a "thoroughly American" subject that makes a conscious allusion to the endless skirmishes between Native Americans and white pioneers. It is these naturalistic and individualizing qualities that have, down through the years, earned such praise for Palmer's sculpture. The White Captive was exhibited by itself at the William Schaus Gallery in New York, from November 1859 to January 1860, where viewers paid twenty-five cents to see the sculpture displayed on a rotating pedestal.